A bounty hunter, an escaped slave, a 19th century wilderness with pockets of benighted "civilization" — it's not the latest Quentin Tarantino extravaganza, but it's at least as interested in bigotry and bad behavior as "Django Unchained" and "The Hateful Eight," and mordantly witty to boot.
"Aferim!," Romania's entry for the foreign-language Academy Award, won the directing prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for the talented young filmmaker Radu Jude. His third feature, and the first to receive theatrical release in the U.S., is a wickedly droll, picaresque tale. In subject and style, it's a departure from his contemporary satires, but the period story is evidence of the same keen eye for class hierarchy, codified cruelty and the limits of self-deception.
Shot in silvery black-and-white, the film is set in Walachia, a region of southern Romania, in 1835 — a mere 21 years before the nation would outlaw slavery. In these final years of the feudal period, a constable named Costandin (Teodor Corban) has been hired to track the escaped slave of a boyar, or land-owning aristocrat. Like most slaves in the region, the wanted man, Carfin (Cuzin Toma), is a Gypsy, a member of the ethnic group that would later be dubbed the Roma people — and that would remain ostracized and demeaned to the present day.
Jude and his cowriter, novelist Florin Lazarescu, have drawn on historical texts and songs to expose the early flourishing of this persistent European bigotry. But the film is no treatise; it's alive with ribald humor and sly observations as the characters — and even the inanimate performers in a puppet show — spout racist and misogynistic claptrap as though citing the highest science.
One of the coarsest and most ridiculous figures is an elderly priest (Alexandru Bindea) whom the constable encounters early in his mission. On the road in a principality controlled by Russia yet officially under Ottoman rule, the good father has a conversation-ready litany of the failings of various nationalities and ethnicities — starting, of course, with Jews.
As the flawed constable, Corban creates a sort of dignified clown, spoon-feeding his supposed wisdom in bite-size aphorisms to his traveling companion, his callow son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). The young man's openheartedness complements and eventually challenges his father's self-satisfied swagger. While Costandin prides himself on his adherence to the law, Ionita comes to question the "justice" they're ostensibly serving. He fears that Carfin — accused of robbing the boyar and seducing his wife — will be unfairly punished if he's returned to his master.
That's because Ionita truly listens to the stories of abuse from Carfin and another slave, a boy of about 10 (Alberto Dinache). His father, on the other hand, like many a relatively comfortable, confrontation-averse employee through the ages, has a knack for compartmentalization. Assuring everyone that he can persuade the boyar to be reasonable, Costandin is able to ignore the slaves' pleas to be released from his custody. They're arguing for their lives. He's doing his job — albeit with a stop at a tavern for a bit of carousing and adultery.
The latter sequence is especially rich, dynamic and fluently choreographed. Like the screenplay, cinematographer Marius Panduru's widescreen compositions find the nexus between the primitive and the modern, whether their focus is a misty forest, a scrubbed landscape straight out of a classic western or a noisy fair complete with rudimentary Ferris wheel.
That the slave Carfin has seen more of the world than his captors, by way of the auction block, is one of the story's cruel paradoxes. And as the travelers cross unmarked borders and the dialogue dips into brief, nonsubtitled passages of Turkish or Romany, "Aferim!" conjures a world in flux. From the ironic "Bravo!" of its title to its Chekhovian final moment after an episode of terrible brutality, Jude's film connects that world, unforgettably, to our own.
In Romanian with English subtitles
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes