A shorthand pitch might be: a road trip with 19th-century Romanians yelling profane things at one another. But Radu Jude’s handsomely produced dramedy is more than that. It’s shot in black and white, and recalls 1960s arthouse cinema, with earthy language. (“Aferim” means “bravo,” and is frequently uttered ironically.)
A constable and his son set out on horseback to retrieve a runaway gypsy slave for their town’s nobleman. Along the way, the pair encounters various other folks — most as raggedy and aggrieved as themselves — and there is among all a good deal of blather about what’s wrong with the world and who is to blame. It’s a bleak, feudal land, where allegiances shift as necessary and shit always rolls downhill. The constable considers gypsies to be low people, but then agrees with a gypsy that the Turks are the worst. And don’t get him started on “men in skirts,” or priests. (Aspects of the story and some of the colorful dialogue and aphorisms are drawn from real period accounts.) It is funny, occasionally shocking, and fascinating throughout. It’s not a work of vérité cinema, but you’ll leave Aferim as if having been on a strange and enlightening journey through another time and place, complete with a crusty old trash-talking guide.