The so-called Romanian New Wave, now at least ten years old, has introduced foreign-film aficionados in this country to a remarkable coterie of challenging filmmakers: Cristi Puiu (Aurora; The Death of Mr. Lazarescu); Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest; Police: Adjective), et al. Now the second wave has arrived in stateside art houses. With his multi-layered, sardonic costumed drama Aferim!, writer-director Radu Jude stakes his claim to further cinematic explorations of his off-the-beaten-track homeland. It's a bitterly, brutally amusing vignette, shot in gorgeous black and white, lifted from Romania's complicated history.
If the adventures of constable Constandin sin Georghe (played by Teodor Corban) and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), traveling on horseback through the wilds of Wallachia in 1835, seem to have the flavor of a classic western, that's purely intentional. Filmmaker Jude evidently admires old Hollywood oaters. This sheriff's mission is startlingly similar to something out of Tarantino, or perhaps 12 Years a Slave — to hunt down and bring back an escaped Rom (aka "Gypsy") slave named Carfin (Toma Cuzin) on behalf of his master, the rich boyar Iordache Candescu (Alexandru Dabija). Bounty hunter Constandin has his orders: The boyar wants the slave brought back alive. Something about sexual indiscretions with the boyar's wife.
"Search and seizure" is the order of the day. Lusty lawman Constandin, who favors a blow on the head as an accompaniment to his inquiries, never stops talking. His colorful patter ("Fish brains in a rabbit head!"; "A good butcher doesn't fear thousands of sheep") reflects the strife-filled social scene of 19th-century Eastern Europe, in which a man like Constandin harbors violent grudges against Russians, Jews, Roma, Turks (the movie's Turkish title translates as "Bravo!"), and noblemen, among others. An equal-opportunity hater, he takes a high-handed manner with the locals while cursing everything from thieves to the plague, and dispensing corny aphorisms — picture Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn from the Coen brothers' True Grit. The credits acknowledge that some of the dialogue and narrative situations have been taken from historical texts.
Working from a script he wrote with Florin Lazarescu, director Jude presents this picturesque festival of abuse with only the merest hint of implied commentary. In line with the dire straits of characters in the films of Jude's Romanian colleagues, constable Constandin's ancient Wallachia is a desperately unhappy place, and the comic absurdity of the bounty hunters' journey is peppered with grotesque injustice and bloodletting. The result is the antithesis of warm and reassuring, hard to snuggle up to, but impossible to take our eyes off of, especially in light of Marius Panduru's expressive black-and-white cinematography. Recommended for the open-minded.