|'A classic story of a lawman on a mission to recover a criminal, but Jude ultimately does very little beyond this basic set-up'.|
Looking at Aferim! as an aesthetic piece of film-making, it's hard not to be impressed. From the opening onwards - complete with bold title card and full credit sequence - the film invokes the great Westerns of the mid 20th Century remarkably well. Despite being a contemporary feature, director Radu Jude succeeds in making this look and feel like something from the Golden Age of Hollywood, albeit performed in Romanian.
The impressive visuals continue throughout, with Jude constantly presenting us with sumptuous panoramic shots of the Wallachian area of Romania where the film is set. The black-and-white photography completes the vintage look, and the director is also confident in utilising a range of camera angles to give his film a distinctive and highly crafted feel. The central pairing of Teodor Corban and Mihai Comănoiu, as police constable Costandin and his son Ionita respectively, uphold this level of quality with their performances being consistently strong throughout.
Away from the film's visual qualities, however, things are less consistently successful. Aferim!'s narrative, penned by Jude in collaboration with Florin Lazarescu, focuses on the journey of Costandin and Ionita to apprehend Carfin (Toma Cuzin), a Gypsy slave who has fled from the house of his master Iordache (Alexandru Dabija) after sleeping with his wife. It's a classic story of a lawman on a mission to recover a criminal, but Jude ultimately does very little beyond this basic set-up. There's very little in the way of a relationship built between captor and captive, and the same can be said for Ionita and the young slave boy he takes charge of for a period during the story.
Both the search for Carfin and the return journey to Iordache's home are littered with diversions and characters, all of which prove to be little more than one-dimensional distractions. Whilst they all offer some form of insight into what life was like in Romania during this time, it would have been much more satisfying if at least one of these figures had been developed into more than just an interruption for a few scenes before the next fleeting character or situation arrives.
Much of the praise for Aferim! has centred upon the focus placed by Jude on a period in history and its controversial practices - most prominently that of Gypsy slavery in Eastern Europe - which is rarely brought up in any forum during today's society. Whilst Jude certainly does this, what he doesn't do however is attempt to educate the audience. We are presented with a great deal of politics, religion, prejudice and social etiquette which is never explained. If the director's intention was to teach his audience about the historical and geographical setting of Aferim!, had he taken the time to elaborate on at least some of the seemingly complex ideas underpinning the film's story and context, he almost certainly would have been more successful in doing this.
Ultimately, it's hard to reward Aferim! for much more than its visuals, which are undeniably beautiful and expertly crafted. As both a historical recreation and an engaging narrative, however, Jude's film far too often fails to satisfy.
Aferim! plays LIFF29 again on Sunday 8th November at 20.00 at Vue in The Light.
The 29th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 5th-19th November 2015 at venues around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House, Cottage Road Cinema and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.