Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic 2015, 105 mins, feature film, black & white, Romanian with English subtitles
Q&A with lead actor Toma Cuzin
Cast: Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Cuzin Toma, Alexandru Dabija, Alexandru Bindea, Luminita Gheorghiu, Victor Rebengiuc
Best Director (Silver Bear in Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival)
Best Film (IndieLisboa Trophy for Best Film)
Best Cinematography (Bayard d'Or for Best Cinematography in Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur)
The Choice of the Critics (FIPRESCI award in Miskolc, Hungary)
Best Film (Audience award in Let's CEE Vienna)
Synopsis: In 19th century Romania, Costandin, a policeman of the time and his son travel through the country in search of a fugitive Gypsy slave.
I don’t know which psychologist said that a person is mentally healthy only if they know where they come from, where they are and where they want to go. I believe this applies to societies too, not only individuals. The Romanian society will not be truly healthy until it faces its past with honesty and lucidity – be it the recent or the remote past.
The movie Aferim! is an attempt to gaze into the past, to take a journey inside the mentalities of the beginning of the 19th century – all epistemological imperfections inherent to such an enterprise included. It is obvious that such an effort would be pointless if we did not believe that this hazy past holds the explanation for certain contemporary issues.
“We research each period in the past primarily for the promises they contain for the following period” says Johan Huizinga. More than anything, I want this film to be a stimulus that makes the audience question in a deeper and more systematic way the issues I was only able to bring up.
“Everything ended and nothing has yet begun” is a quote from radical liberal Constantin A. Rosetti that sums up maybe in the best way the beginning of the 19th century. Wallachia, where the story in Aferim! takes place, is in the middle of radical changes if we consider the clothes of people walking in the streets, but moderate if we could get inside their minds. The Russian occupation between 1828 and 1834 and the Russian governor Pavel Kiseleff brought a series of reforms to the country, gathered in the Organic Regulations, a fundamental law that regulated the organizing and reorganizing of modern institutions.
Wallachia goes through significant changes in terms of appearances as early as the beginning of the 19th century, during the Russian-Turkish war between 1806 and 1812. The six year long Russian occupation, with its French-speaking European military staff, contributes to spreading the French fashion, in all its aspects: clothes, language, music, dancing, literature. So far, the political elite gravitated around Constantinople, but now Paris becomes the centre of all emulation and inspiration. Travels and travellers to the heart of Europe are now an obligation and a duty, just like traveling to Istanbul was before a form of education and acknowledgment of the Ottoman domination. The young are sent to complete their studies in Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and Geneva. They come back wearing a top hat and a tuxedo, with the revolution on their minds and running through their veins. In the country, things are still attached to the familiar and dominant world of traditions and the Church has the central place, regulating day-to-day life and maintaining and spreading western myths about Jews or gypsies specific to the period. In fact, we are in a Europe dominated by the myth of the wandering Jew, a myth that has been transformed into an economic reality for the Romanian Principalities. Arriving from everywhere, Jews settle down in the important centres of Wallachia, taking up various businesses, especially commerce, and managing parlours and grocery shops. These businesses had been under the monopoly of the Church before, so now the Church tries to keep competition away by spreading hostile stories about the new comers.
Women lead the trend when it comes to change, adopting and adapting the French fashion, learning French, waltzing their way to the rhythm of Frantz Liszt’s music, while the society is not yet ready to grant them the visibility they demand. Adultery remains a female responsibility par excellence, for example. The little penal code published in 1783 mentions the same punishment for both men and women found guilty of adultery: they shall have their nose slit and shall be sent to the monastery for two years. But actually it is only the adulterous women who are sent to the monastery “to come to their senses”, and their dowry and wedding gifts are confiscated, whilst male adultery is merely registered as a routine extra-marital relationship. The Romanian society is so concerned with women’s honour and reputation, that it allows husbands who are cheated on to punish the poor lover caught in the act with their wife. Revenge included tarring and feathering, exposing the naked man in public places, whipping or even castration, especially when the lover belonged to an inferior social category. And gypsies belonged in the lowest social class. Attached to their masters by slavery, gypsies seem no different from the animals on the noblemen’s or church’s domain. At the time, gypsy is synonym with slavery, and the word “rroma” does not even exist yet, it will only be introduced in the 20th century.
Abolishing slavery is a very new idea and only timidly advocated, because slave owners have important functions in the political life. Preaching freedom for these poor beings, in the name of humanity, starts from the Church, through the voice of a few enlightened ecclesiastics at the beginning of the 19th century, but the time for freedom has not yet come. It is only with the active engagement of young intellectuals around the 1848 movement that the public opinion will be shaped in favor of freeing the gypsy slaves. It took more than a decade to translate this process into legal form: in 1856, “The Law for the Emancipation of All Gypsies in Wallachia” is passed.
Constanța Vintilă-Ghițulescu, PhD in history and civilization at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris; researcher at the “Nicolae Iorga”. History Institute; associated professor at the Sociology College within the University of Bucharest. Aferim! historical consultant.