Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Aferim! is a period picture directed by Radu Jude. Jude is a director affiliated with the Rumanian New Wave.
Jude was born in Bucharest in 1977. He attended film school, graduating in 2003, and, then, worked on some international films, including Costa Gavras Amen (2004). He was an assistant director on one of the founding films of the Rumanian New Wave, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, made by Cristi Piui in 2005.
Jude has worked extensively in Rumanian television and has directed more than 100 TV commercials. His short (23 minute) film, The Tube with a Hat (2006) has won awards at more than a dozen film festivals. The film concerns a boy who is upset that his television set is broken. With his profane and foul-mouthed father, the boy drags the ailing TV set across a soggy, rural landscape. The objective is for someone to fix the TV so that he boy can watch a Bruce Lee film that is scheduled for broadcast.
Jude has made about five feature films. Prior to Aferim!, his most well-received picture was 2012's Everybody in our Family, a movie about a divorced man struggling to arrange a vacation to the Black Sea with his daughter who lives in the custody of his estranged wife and her boyfriend. (This film is amplification of a short subject called Alexandra made in 2007). The controversial Aferim! was released 2012. It garnered the director an award for Best Direction (second place) in the Berlin Film Festival.
In 2016, Jude released Scarred Hearts, a film based on a well-known Rumanian autobiographical novel. The movie is about a love affair between two patients at a tuberculosis clinic and hospital in the nineteen-thirties and, apparently, addresses obliquely the rise of Fascism in Rumania. The film has received a mixed reaction.
Rumanian New Wave
Some dispute exists as to when the Rumanian New Wave in film making first took hold. Many critics, however, date this film movement to 2005, the year that Cristi Piui made The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Corneliu Porumboi directed 12:08 East of Bucharest, a scathing and extremely funny post-mortem on the revolution that swept Nicolai Ceausecue from power – this happened in December 1989 (possibly at 12:08 in Bucharest). In 2006, Christian Nemeresu directed Marilena from P7, a 43 minutes picture about a child prostitute. 2007 saw the release of Four months, Three weeks, and Two Days directed by the third member of the triumvirate of leading Rumanian New Wave directors, Cristian Mungiu. (This film is a harrowing account of a young woman’s abortion – it remains a film that I have been unable to watch to its conclusion.) Police, Adjective (2009) is a kind of ultra low-key crime film, directed by Porumboi. Beyond the Hills (2012) is the second film in Cristi Piui’s projected group of films entitled "Six Films from the Outskirts of Bucharest."
Rumanian New Wave films are characterized by a directorial style that seems obsessed with rejecting anything that might hint at Hollywood narrative film making. The movies feature exceptionally long takes that are often punishing to the audience – the camera is usually placed in a position where its view of the action is occluded. The films use almost no close-ups and have minimalist plots, generally a situation with absurdist implications worked out at length. The narratives are documentary in style and generally promote some readily accepted social truism. The inaugural film of the movement, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is based on a real event, the death of so-called Patient 52, a pensioner who was shuffled from one emergency room waiting room or corridor until he died – the point is that medical care should be better in Rumania and that the elderly should be treated with more compassion. Police, Adjective is about corrupt police practices; 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, by implication, suggests that abortion at will should be readily available. Afterim! demonstrates that slavery is brutal and a bad institution – probably a notion with which most of us would agree.
It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a film movement that is essentially negative in character. Like the Dogme movement in Scandinavia, the Rumanian new wave defines itself as being adamantly anti-Hollywood. But there is a question as to how much squalor an audience should be forced to suffer, particularly when the hyper-realistic desolation is presented in extremely long takes lensed by a fixed camera, often, with a poor perspective on the action presented. And the naive adherents of the Rumanian New Wave should be reminded from time to time that anti-glamor always ends up as its own specious form of glamor – Andy Warhol demonstrated this in the sixties and the Punk Rock movement proved the same point a decade later.
Wallachia is a portion of modern-day Rumania between the lower Danube (flowing into the Black Sea) and the Carpathanian Mountains. For the our purposes, the area can be thought of as the Wild West of Eastern Europe. Certainly, this is how Jude portrays the region in Afterim!.
Wallachia dates to a rebellion by a Vlach (Slavic) voivode (warlord) before 1350. At that time, the area was under the control of the Christian empire of Hungary. Basarab, a Vlach voivode, threw off the yoke of the Hungarians and established a principality. (Basarab has a Turkish name, but seems to have been a Christian Slav). Little Wallachia persisted as collection of loosely allied feudal principalities against repeated Turkish invasions. It’s great national hero is Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler – he successfully repelled the Ottoman incursions in Wallachia in the early 15th century.
Ultimately, Wallachia fell under Turkish suzereinity and was ruled, albeit with a light hand and remotely, from Istanbul. The Turks governed the country through a class of Christians called Phanariots – that is, wealthy Greek merchants who held an enclave in Istanbul and loaned money to the Sultans. Phanariot Christians were dispatched to Wallachia and given feudal estates in exchange for keeping the peace in the region. Nonetheless, Wallachia was a "blood land" – the country was a battlefield where Turks fought the Russians and the Austrians (who were now allied with Hungary). The territory was largely lawless, polyglot, and wretchedly poor. Wealthy Boyars (boyar = landlord) managed enormous feudal estates. The Boyars were generally Greek Phanariots although some were Slavs. As depicted in the film, the Boyars lived like Sultans – they wore enormous kalpaks (or bulbous fez hats) and generally adopted the customs of the Ottomans. Their women wore Turkish harem attire.
Wallachia was devastated by a great plague that decimated Bucharest, the area’s leading city, in 1813 - 1814. (This is called Caragea’s plague and seems to be referenced at the outset of the film; the disease was the bubonic plague). The Greek war for independence triggered a similar uprising in Wallachia in 1821, but this was unsuccessful.
The Russians fought the Turks in 1828 and defeated them. By that conflict the Russians seized control of Wallachia. However, Russia didn’t have much use for the quarrelsome frontier ruled largely by feudal boyars and so Russia returned Wallachia to Turkish control in the 1832. Governance of the region shifted between Ottoman Turk and Russian authorities every few years up to 1848 and the Wallachian revolution. This uprising, part of a series of rebellions that convulsed Europe in that year, was mounted against Turkish rule that was paradoxically enforced by the Russian military. There were more wars and the Treaty of Paris led to a situation in which Wallachia was jointly ruled by Turkey and Russia under the supervision of five other European powers. This proved to be untenable. The Russians fought the Turks again in 1877 and, during this war, a severely weakened Ottoman Empire conceded the sovereignity of Rumania.
For the purposes of Afterim! imagine Wallachia to be something like Arizona territory, vast and mountainous wilderness with desert-like steppes. The Boyars may be imagined as great ranchers. The great landlords or ranchers hold enormous estates on which they rule as a law unto themselves. The police, like Constandin and Ionita, are, in effect, instruments of a remote Empire – the Ottomans in Istanbul – and, instead of John B. Stetson hats they wear kalpaks (or fezes) as a sign of their allegiance to the Turkish power that they despise. Hiding in the forests and mountains are the Hajduks (called Houdieks in the movie) – these are brigands and outlaws, sometimes considered freedom fighters by the oppressed Eastern Orthodox peasants. The Hajduks are fierce, murderous, and unpredictable – they may be imagined like the Apache Indians.
The official hierarchy in the region in 1835 is that the Turks rule from Istanbul using as intermediaries Greek Christian Phanariots. The Phanariots are boyars, although not all boyars are Greek Christians. The boyars occupy immense feudal estates that are taxed by Istanbul. The Russian military makes periodic incursions and is hated by the Boyars and the Turks. The Rumanian people are Eastern Orthodox Christians and largely peasants. The mercantile class and moneylenders in Bucharest are Jews who are despised by the Turks, the Russians, the Boyars, and the Rumanian peasants. At the bottom of the heap are the hapless Roma or Tigin — they are slaves.
In 1835, Rumania (sometimes spelled "Romania) was the place with the largest concentration of Roma people. The Roma are from the Indian subcontinent and speak a language allied to Punjabi and Hindi. They seem to have been transported to Rumania during the Mongol invasions around 1260 – at that time, the Roma were slaves to the Mongols.
At the time of the film about 3 to 3 ½ % of the population of Wallachia, where the Roma were, by and large, concentrated, was Roma. They were an enslaved people with no legal rights. In 1843, the Wallachian State freed all slaves owned by the government. The Orthodox Church, also a major slave-holding institution (the little boy in the film is sold to an Orthodox priest) freed its slaves in February 1848. However, privately owned Roma were not liberated until February 1856. (The State paid compensation to private landowners for the loss of their property). Wallachian Roma are overwhelming Eastern Orthodox Christians.
Another name for the Roma in Rumania is tigen – tigen is the same word as Zigeuner in Germany and means "gypsy."
The Roma were thought to be soothsayers, fortune-tellers, and claimed to possess unusually powerful healing abilities.
Perspectives on the Film
Aferim! invokes Hollywood Westerns, particularly John Ford’s great The Searchers. In both The Searchers and Jude’s film, an older man and youth traverse deserts and mountain wilderness on a quest. As in many classic Westerns, the quest measures the length of the film – when the quest is complete the movie ends. As in The Searchers, Aferim! poses the question of whether the cynical, bitter older man will infect his youthful sidekick with his hatred. The suspense in both films arises from whether the hero will really carry out his morally ambiguous and, even, evil objective – will John Wayne murder his niece because she has been sexually corrupted (in his eyes) by the Cheyenne warrior who is now her husband? Will the searchers in Aferim! allow the aggrieved Boyar to take his terrible revenge on the slave that they are returning to him?
In a Hollywood Western, we know in advance the answer to the suspenseful question motivating the film: John Wayne will not kill Natalie Wood but, instead, will take her in his arms and carry her back to civilization. Similarly, in a Hollywood Western, the heros of Aferim! would rescue Carfin from slavery. In fact, Jude even hints at a plot denouement of this kind: we know that there are wild Hajduk in the mountains and woods because we have seen the effects of their attack on a stagecoach. If the Rumanian film were directed by John Ford or Bud Boetticher, the Hajduk would attack our little party and, in the ensuing desperate battle, Carfin would prove himself to a be courageous fighter, a true man. Upon being returned to the Boyar’s ranch, Constandin sin Geordh, the old constable, woud get into a titanic fist fight with the Boyar over Carfin’s fate – at the climax, the men would shake hands and Carfin would be freed. Hollywood’s approach to resolving plot issues raised by the Rumanian film would be satisfying to the audience – the climax would be entertaining and morally satisfying. But Jude is not making a Hollywood picture, unfortunately I think – instead he is immured in the Rumanian New Wave, an exponent of its shabby realism, and so he can’t avoid a climax that every viewer can see coming an hour before it occurs. The Hollywood version of this fable would be a better film, more entertaining, and not necessarily less realistic than the dark outcome upon which Jude insists. My key point is that Jude’s cynicism is the easier outcome for the film maker – it requires less talent than configuring the Hollywood ending. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows exactly what will happen when Carfin is returned to his Boyar master. The film’s nasty joke is that Constandin and Ionita have persuaded themselves by wishful thinking that the climactic atrocity will not occur.
Like a Hollywood Western, Aferim! is shot on National Park land – in this case in the Macin Mountain National Park north of the Danube. These are the handsome chaparral and wooded mountains that figure in the bucolic landscapes at the end of the film – the two protagonists ride their horses toward the Macin range. Other parts of the film were shot in the Danube wetlands and marshes in Comana National Park where the great river flows into the Black Sea.
The stylistic differences between Aferim! and a film like The Searchers are decisive. Simply put, Jude creates barriers to the viewer identifying with his protagonists – he literally keeps them remote from the audience. This is a formal strategy that is artistically implemented throughout the film, but must be questioned. Why does Jude keep us away from (isolated from, as it were) his two principal characters?
The technique used to prevent us from identifying with Ionita or Constandin (or anyone in the film for that matter) is simple enough – film everything as a long shot. In the first hour of the movie, I counted only one close-up – this was an insert of a campfire collapsing in on itself, a peculiar image as well in that it is held for disconcertingly long period. We don’t see the two protagonist in an Plan Americain shot ("American shot") – that is, a shot showing both characters from the knees up – until 45 minutes have lapsed. Most of the shots showing our heros riding the range are filmed so that we can’t clearly see the character’s faces. Although we hear their dialogue overdubbed, as if recorded right next to the characters, we don’t see them except as small figures dwarfed by the landscape through which they are riding. The great bulk of shots in the film show Constandin and Ionita as mounted figures remote from the camera. Most of these "figures in a landscape" shot are held for 10 to 15 seconds and show nothing more than men on horseback traversing mountainous or swampy terrain. There are a half-dozen Plan Americain shots during the tavern and inn sequence but the movie, in general, consists of static long shots. The effect is to show the characters dwarfed by their surroundings and, presumably, at the mercy of the environment. The remoteness of the characters from our perspective is incongruous in light of the fact that we can hear them very clearly – the soundtrack, without any non-diegetic music – consists largely of people ranting at one another and Constandin’s wheezy platitudes. There is no analytical cutting in the film – it’s as if the movie were shot in the era of Ingeborg Holm: there are no eyeline matches, no parallel cutting with the exception of the shot of the campfire, an image that punctuates the narrative, there are no close-ups of animals or people or their equipment – with the exception of the Inn scenes and the search of the peasant’s huts, there is no continuity cutting. The film is conspicuously stark and impoverished in its use of film grammar – 70% of the movie consists of long shots of the characters riding their horses.
Similarly, the film is relentlessly ugly, cruel, and harrowing. The dialogue at the outset concerns the bubonic plague and its ravages. Constandin is sick and, probably, dying. Hajduk raid stagecoaches and leave the naked, mutilated corpses next to their wrecked wagon. Everyone beats or whips or abuses everyone else. The realm is beset by outside enemies – the Russians and the Turks threaten to oppress the Rumanians who, themselves, viciously oppress the "crows" – that is the Roma. At the Fair, desperate people try to sell themselves as slaves in exchange for a little food. The Inn is full of whores and verminous lice. Children and adults laugh merrily at a Punch & Judy puppet show in which a male puppet beats his puppet-wife to death before then thrashing a priest into unconsciousness. Constandin believes that he is a just and merciful man and that his enforcement of the law is a pillar on which society rests – but, of course, he is as corrupt as the constable who sells him information about Carfin for four talers. The Wallachian woods are dangerous, but they are also being cut down. An environmental catastrophe is under way – the forests are being burned and slashed. Constandin wonders how people will regard him (and his kind) in 200 years.
Radu Jude’s Aferim! looks eastward, I think, to the films of the great Alexei German, particularly the hellscape in Hard to be a God. German’s film imagines a world in which there was no renaissance, an alien planet trapped in a filthy, excremental dark ages. German was a much greater film maker and his pictures are better because he doesn’t keep his distance from his characters – German insists that we be hurled right into the action and films everything in close-up. By contrast to Jude’s use of estheticizing distance, his long elegiac images of isolated men on horseback, German pitches you right into the filth. But the savage view of human nature is similar to what we are shown in Jude’s movie. Similarly, there are elements of dark humor in Aferim! that are derived from the nightmare films of Kira Muratova, a female filmmaker from Wallachia who lived for some number of years in Bucharest. (Muratova was born in 1934 in Rumania and I feel her influence in the picture, particularly its final line.) Muratova is not well-known in American and her movies are almost impossible to see. One of them, however, 2002's Chekhovian Motifs is on DVD and can be studied. (Her masterpiece, The Asthenic Syndrome is currently unavailable in the West.) In Muratova’s films, every one curses continuously and uses the foulest language imaginable. Her scenes of families around the dinner table are both horrifying and hilarious – father and mother throw things at each other and everyone is constantly vilifying everyone else and people are always beating and being beaten. The scene in the tower in Aferim! is characteristic of Muratova’s sensibility – Constandin interviews the Boyar’s adulterous wife who has been beaten so badly that she can’t stand up. She is an unpleasant character who whines while she plays with the kittens in her bed. The Boyar has confined her in a tower from which she is apparently forbidden to descend – I presume that the ladder that Constandin and Ionita use to reach her is normally not available for her use. Constandin sympathizes with the woman’s plight and feels that her husband has misused her. However, he also feels the need to endorse the husband’s right to punish his wife. "It’s our Christian law," Constandin says to the sulking woman. The woman’s maid, an old crone, decides to endorse Constandin’s "man-explaining" – "Well," the hag says, " Adam kicked Eve in the stomach." "You shut up," Constandin barks at her. For some reason, this is very funny and seems to me to be derived from similar scenes in Murakova’s Chekhovian Motifs.
Further clues that Radu Jure has carefully watched Muratova’s Chekhovian Motifs are found at the end of the movie – indeed, in its last line. Ionita is understandable shaken by what he has seen at the Boyar’s ranch. Constandin tries to cheer the boy up. He says of the mutilated Carfin: "Well, he ain’t no fuckin’ brother of yours." The camera follows the two riders and, suddenly, the black and white image bursts into spangles of sunlight reflecting on the lens, an optical effect that renders the protagonists invisible behind bright patterns of glare – this kind of effect occurs often in Muratova’s films. The men ride out of the glare and Constandin says: "Life will be better and we’ll have a chance to rest." As in a classic Western, the two adventurers, now older and wiser, ride toward the distant high sierra.
This last line seems familiar. In fact, it’s paraphrase of the famous ending to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Why Jude refers to Uncle Vanya in this context is completely unclear to me. But Jude draws attention to the reference. In the final title, he says that the dialogue and situations in the film were derived from various sources – one of which is said to be "A. P. Cekov" (that is, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.)