Aferim! is not your now-typical Romanian film. At least it’s not in the style of the Romanian New Wave. Radu Jude’s 19th century road movie is both about slavery and, as all road movies, friendship. It’s a movie that is sometimes funny, disturbing, and always very beautiful.
A lot of the vistas, compositions, and locations look like a western, especially this top one, which opens the film:
That’s John Ford in 2.35.
Jude’s film almost feels like historical document rather than fiction film. That’s supported by the end credits which reference the many books from which bits of dialogue and plot were taken. At times the film moves slowly as Costandin (Teodor Corbin) and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) make there way through the countryside hunting the escaped slave Carfin (Toma Cuzin), and then back again.
Like any good road film (the IMDb trivia for this one points out its similarities to The Last Detail) Aferim! tests the patience of those on the trek and finds unexpected relationships blossoming. This film ends with a really harsh scene, made even darker by the dialogue and camaraderie that’s preceded it.
Jude shoots a lot of long takes, but the camera isn’t flashy. In fact, it mostly just pans and tilts, and seems to always be on a tripod. Here’s a shot that’s nearly four minutes long. It’s towards the end when Costandin and Ionita meet Iordache (Alexandru Dabija), to whom they have returned Carfin.
The scene is four people in a room, but with dramatic, contrasty lighting, and simple movement back and forth.
They enter, and Iordache sits. That’s Costandin in the foreground in the third frame below:
Costandin asks for his money. Iordache stands, goes back towards where they entered, pays him, and returns again to his seat:
Paperwork needs to be prepared, so now Iordache walks to the opposite side of the room, and the two men follow. Here the camera does track a little bit (evidenced by the changed perspective in the background).
And then the scene ends rather simply as Iordache leaves, and so do Costandin and Ionita:
Not only is this impressive for the duration, but I love the really sourcy lighting. The two windows at Iordache’s desk and the one by the entrance seem to be the only light in the room, so whenever someone comes closer to camera – which is pretty often – they’re in nearly complete silhouette.
Iordache basically always leads the way; a nice change from previous frames and a shift in Costandin’s character, who has been the macho head, and center of frame, for much of the film before this.
There’s something in the power of having characters nearly wipe frame and Jude does this a lot in this sequence. It really just shows off some depth to an otherwise tight room (and of course leads to stronger compositions).
In a lot of ways I feel like these types of long takes (minimal movement of both actors and camera, no steadicam, one location) are harder to achieve. In something like the famous one from True Detective there’s so much else going on narrative and camera-wise that it’s easy to be distracted and just go with the energy. Here there’s real silence and stillness, something that often – at least to me – seems to call for an insert or at least a cut. Jude resists that and sticks to his wide guns and the scene is more tense for it. We get the same sense of waiting for Carfin’s fate as do Costandin and Ionita.