Aferim! — the title means, according to one online source, “Well done!”— is a darkly comic historical film that maintains a quite steady stream of violence, misunderstanding, and prejudice, while at the same time giving us glimmers of possibility for hope and justice.
Like one of the countries which produced it, Romania, one senses that the Communist oppression that burdened that country not so long ago could almost be the reference point for its grimness and humor as much as the history of the Ottoman empire in the first half of the 19th century, which is its actual setting. Put another way, the film presents a world in which harshness — and not just in the material sense — is taken for granted; but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the story.
The plot itself is a simple one, reminiscent of numerous American Westerns of the last sixty years: a servant (who is also a gypsy, or “crow” as they are disparagingly called by most everyone in the film) has had an affair with a landowner’s wife, and the constable and his son (who is also a sort of trainee) are sent to find the servant and bring him back to be punished.
This hunt for a fugitive allows the viewer to encounter a steady stream of figures, giving us a fascinating panorama of a world long gone. This is also accomplished visually by the director’s stunning use of numerous wide-screen long shots that linger for extended periods over large clusters of people or a few individuals set in the context of a rugged and often beautiful landscape.
Finally, this panorama includes the various prejudices, tendencies and desires of a world full of clashing cultures and attitudes: Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, the compassionate and the hateful.
But is Aferim! therefore simply an art-house travelogue, an opportunity to engage in a little cinematic time travel? Not quite. For, as said earlier, there is a hint — even with the extreme brutality we experience by the end of the film — that concepts of justice and mercy are carried in the mind and heart, somehow, some way, by the constable, Constandin. It is his presence, however flawed, however inconstant in its commitments, that draws us in deeper, and could also cause us to think about our own time and its values and violence.