The road stretches ever onward in Aferim!, a rustic Romanian period drama that imagines a trek upon this thin stretch of dirt as a running metaphor for the slow crawl of human progress. Tasked with tracking down a runaway gypsy slave, local constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) heads off with his naïve son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu)—two fools plunging into a lively comedy of errors as they carry out their mission, facing off with all manners of human iniquity in the process. Building his story one calamitous run-in at a time, first-time director Radu Jude creates a colorful, Brueghelian patchwork of backwoods peasantry, amid a land menaced by the Ottoman Empire on one side and the Russian on the other, its masses of people similarly wedged between corrupt lords and their mistreated slaves.
Conveyed in a crisp black and white which at times seems at odds with the crudity of its setting, the film envisions 1835 Wallachia as a tumultuous place, far from Europe’s grand cities or its Enlightenment thinking, where medieval systems of feudal authoritarianism still persist. The clearest recent point of comparison is Hard to Be a God, without the sci-fi framing structure and wild formal experimentation. That was a story of history made aggressively alien, where Aferim! attempts to pull the past closer to the present, drawing insistent parallels between this crooked, upside-down reality—where cruelty is accepted as a given and money always has the final say—and our own.
The film revolves around the aging Costandin, coarse and more than a bit boorish, an encyclopedic repository of rural wisdom, dirty jokes, ridiculous stereotypes, and mangled platitudes. Ionita seems to accept his father’s lessons without questioning, but his sense of right and wrong is far more acute, subtly nudging Costandin from proudly stubborn dishonesty toward a real reckoning with his choices. This is helped along by the inherent immorality of their quest, never acknowledged, but clearly weighing heavily on the characters, especially after they catch and attempt to return their quarry. After a while, Constandin’s constant joking comes into focus as a defense mechanism, and similar to the bouts of drunken carousing and paid-for sex—moments of respite from all this staggering corruption and equality.
Such awareness leaves Aferim! somewhere between tragedy and comedy, its black humor inextricably tied to serious questions about moral relativism and personal responsibility. Packed with a rapid procession of short, hectic scenes, the film digs deep into a world where corruption has settled like a thick, permanent fog, where priests haggle over the price of child slaves, dispensing blessings amid scenes of barroom vice. Gradually, the audience and characters alike are forced to reckon with the consequences of their actions, with a grisly coda that puts a firm final point on the filmmakers’ criticisms. Overwhelmed by the grotesqueness of their circumstances, Costandin and Ionita move along impassively, a reminder of both the slowness of progress and how much further we still have to go.