Bravó! Aferim!

in 12nd Jameson Cinefest – Miskolc International Film Festival

by Anna Geréb

Three Romanian films were featured in the programme at this year’s Jameson CineFest and, despite facing a very strong feature film competetion, two of them walked away with awards, while the third had been awarded here previously. Two of the three films were the work of the same director, Radu Jude. His Everybody in Our Family (Toate Lumea in Familia Nostra) received Fipresci’s award right here in Miskolc in 2012, and now he presented us with another excellent film. The third Romanian film is the work of Tudor Giurgiu, whose political thriller Why Me? (De ce eu?) claimed the International Ecumenical Jury’s special prize.

This year’s winning film by Radu Jude was also awarded a Silver Bear in Berlin and was chosen to represent Romania at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards. The film’s title, Aferim!, means “Bravo!”

Why are we so excited? Desolate praries, romantic mountain passes, horsemen and horses – as if we were watching a Western. We are waiting for action, the legendary past of the mid-19th century in a kind of Eastern European Don Quixote-Sancho Panza picaresque – we are waiting for adventure. But there is really no action, no adventure. Perhaps its rather a type of historical road movie in a folksy setting, with folkloric heroes fighting glorious battles? Only there is no romanticism, no heroic past and no glory.

Then what is in this film? An unprecedented, deep scrutinisation of the mind and thinking of a nation.Those readers lucky enough to be born in other places have to understand the unique historical situation of Romania (and Hungary), the effects of which are still felt to this day. In the absence of civic traditions, the mentality becomes mired in feudalism, so we tend to idealise the past, frequently highlighting a version of it in which we are more important and unique than we really are; better and stronger than the other people living around us or among us. We believe we can compensate for our historical defeats in this way, rather than facing ourselves in a zone of self-reflection.

The young Romanian director Radu Jude was brave enough to do what no one in the region ever has managed: he ruthlessly dispatches all our favourite lies and knocks down our illusory hero myths. On top of that he manages to do all this from inside the depths the “folk soul” through using the folksy attributes of the “national folk” theatre tradition. (The “National Folk Play” was a theatrical genre that flowered from the mid-19th century until WWI, a kind of village-operetta employing melodramatic elements, songs and jokes.).

Today with the resurgence of an increasingly nationalistic atmosphere, the traditional location of pride in the “national folk” is even more painful, especially when we see such familiar, kind, temperamental “folksy” peasant figures speaking in colourful idioms, wearing detailed period costume. We hear and see the folkoric melodies, a thick mixture of wisdom peppered with casual racism, anti-semitism, human complicity in brutal atrocity, profane persons’ constant reference to religion, and the desire for freedom mingled with fear and cowering.

But don’t think that this is a didactic demonstration; nor do we get a kitsch sentimental proverb. The elevated, lyrical style has a solid unity and coherent consistency which draws us into that world. The director never allows us to sentimentalise or be moved by our own beauty or the sight of quintessential village scenes, and he even finishes a rollicking pub scene before we really start to get into it. And all of this in sombre black and white! (As if utilizing the effect of Hungarian Béla Tarr. However, the quality of the projection is very disturbing: the emptiness and immateriality of digital projection took away from the effect.)

Radu Jude has created a new genre – the uproarious film-ballad-comedy, where humorous episodes build in a slow crescendo to their culmination. That’s how this colourful world is revealed before our eyes in the story of Constandin, the constable, and his son, who are sent on a long journey on the orders of a powerful landowner, the boyar. They must capture Carfin, the gypsy slave who not only a thief, but also slept with the boyar’s wife. A brutal, merciless death awaits him, but by the time the bellicose constable and his son make it to the place of judgement with their captive, their relationship with him has changed. Nevertheless, they are powerless to save him from the lethal wrath of his owner. That is the happy ending of Radu Jude’s “national folk” western: bitter defeat.

Aferim! Bravó!

Edited by Neil Young