At first blush, the least Romanian of the Romanian New Wavers, Radu Jude's new film is in no way a steely-eyed, ultra-realist, uninflected working-class trudge, and the cranial wounds of Eastern European Communism are yet a gleam in the characters' eyes. Rather, more acutely than The Hateful Eight, Aferim! is a comic western — complete with period-drama frontier-ness, poky horse ridin', bounty hunters, and an Anthony Mann-ish love for scrubby mountain landscapes. The particulars emerge gradually: It's post-medieval (early 1800s, actually) Wallachia, and the two chatty riders we meet are mercenary "constables" traversing a peasant landscape of plague, frontier justice and gypsy slaves.
Shot in spectral widescreen black and white, Jude's movie (a prizewinner at the Berlin Film Festival and Jude's first film to be distributed stateside) plays out almost entirely at a lazy distance, without close-ups; you have to lean in to catch the ironies amid the wild openness. The ersatz lawmen on the journey, plump crotchety father Costandin (Teodor Corban) and dim son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), have been commissioned to track down a runaway Romani slave wanted, it is revealed, for fucking the boyar's wife. Mostly, they talk. The pair's run-ins — with plague-infected peasants, terrified "crows" (gypsies), an outrageously xenophobic priest, a militia of other boyars, even an officious Ottoman bigwig — float on nonstop banter, most of it spewing from Costandin's mouth in a river of invective and idiotic aphorisms. ("Go find a dog to fuck you!" is one throwaway gibe.) Everything is for sale — humans, justice, truth — and everything, even the capture of the errant slave, is done with a weary shrug.
The experience is almost early Jarmuschian. As the road movie boomerangs back, with Toma Cuzin's fugitive bent over the horse with his gunshot ass in the air, the repartee is now a three-way debate (plus a gabby preteen orphan stolen and then sold at market, because why not?), and Lima-syndrome sympathy for the doomed man quietly grips the constables. But getting the scalawag off is a tough sell, even if the boyar's wife is nutty; the law is in the nobleman's hands, and every scabrous bon mot and blithe rationale for slavery we hear is saturated with macho presumptions about class and power that haven't really gone away.
Jude, a New Wave stalwart since his unforgettable short The Tube with a Hat (2006) won virtually every festival prize there is, coolly resists any portent about how the journey might resolve — we fear the worst, and get it, in a typically offhand Romanian way. (By that time, the affirmative Ottoman exclamation "Aferim!", meaning "bravo!," delivers an appalling ironic chill.) Quite possibly the only film ever made focused on the centuries-long enslavement of the Romani in Eastern Europe, Aferim! plays like a sleight of hand, amusing us at a distance with vulgarisms and entrancing us with countryside, while the bloody work of civilization grinds on in of the corner of our eye.