Constandin (Teodor Corban), in the foreground, in Aferim! (Silviu Ghetie)

Constandin (Teodor Corban), in the foreground, in Aferim! (Silviu Ghetie)

“Kiss the hand you cannot bite.” Cynical and bitter, this helpful hint happens to be the title of a book about Romania’s late, hated dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. But it’s also a key to understanding Romania itself. Authoritarianism and its craven twin, flattery, richly water the country’s roots. First, a feudal satrapy held Roma slaves for 500 years until 1856. Later, communism plunged Romania into repression after 1945, and the nation has struggled since a 1989 revolution to establish rule of law and leadership unsullied by rank patronage. Radu Jude’s historical drama Aferim! looks back on Romania’s eat-or-be-eaten origins with a cold, appraising eye. For all the sorrow of the past, the film finds little to pity.

It opens in 1835. Two men on horseback ride over the hills of Romania’s heartland, shot in richly toned black-and-white widescreen. They are bluff lawman Constandin (Teodor Corban) and his doltish son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), and they’re on a bounty hunt for a runaway gypsy slave (as he’s referred to) whose boyar owner is especially keen to get him back. The stately film takes the form of a Romanian Western or road movie. Father and son will follow the Western playbook, churlishly wreaking havoc over hill and dale.

Unhurried scenes expose the countryside’s grubby symbiosis between the absolutely powerful and the groveling powerless. As a lawgiver, Constandin awards himself an unlimited mandate to rough up women and drag innocent suspects by the hair. Priests own wretched gypsies (denigrated as “crows”), who beg for coins as they fend off blows. Peasants fawningly address superiors as “my bright lord,” but these same masters will soon be cringing in turn before someone higher up the chain. The film’s title is an old Turkish term meaning “well done,” which here can mean sycophantic praise or a sarcastic putdown. We don’t see much in between.

As well as zero-sum authority, ignorance rules the land. Characters on the bounty hunters’ path spew foul prejudice and superstition (the latter still a feature of Romanian life; candidates in the country’s 2009 presidential election accused each other of casting evil spells). Constandin enjoys listening to himself launch folksy homilies such as “In the ass of the humble, the devil sits cross-legged.” Other reviewers have called this bluster a kind of black comedy, although I failed to see the humor. Perhaps the constable’s platitudes are supposed to be a defensive measure, a know-it-all’s attempt to have the answers in a treacherous world.

The story stirs toward tentative emotional depth when the two finally capture their prey and start to bring him home. Hogtied and slung over Costandin’s saddle with his feet trapped in a wooden stock, the talkative slave (Cuzin Toma) tries first to impress the pair, then to charm them, and finally to win their sympathy. His attempts make some headway.

Filmed in wide- to medium-range shots with no more than a few close-ups, Aferim!’s cinematography varies from intensely composed to ramshackle. Nature compositions are incandescent and balanced; in one scene Ionita naively remarks on the loveliness of the landscape, only to be quashed by his father. It’s as though we ourselves are being told to block out any lingering beauty and to concentrate on the grim business of staying alive.

Crowd scenes, on the other hand, play out chaotically, with bodies blocking our view of the action just as they do in real crowds. The hubbub adds excitement and realism while acting as a distancing technique. When a tiny slave boy pathetically begs not to be sold at a town market, his voice throbbing with almost unbearable grief, the child is filmed through busy throngs with his back to the camera. Move along, the film seems to say. Nothing to see here. Happens every day.

Aferim! inexorably builds to a grisly denouement, shocking in its amoral ruthlessness. For all its lurid cruelty, the end only affirms the film’s low-key yet chilly mantra: here, it’s good to be the king. Because if you’re not, you’re screwed. We turn this thought over as our heroes ride on to their next cruel adventure.

Directed by Radu Jude
Produced by Ada Solomon
Written by Jude and Florin Lazarescu
Released by Big World Pictures
Romanian, Roma and Turkish with English subtitles
Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic. 105 min. Not rated
With Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Cuzin Toma, Alexandru Dabija, and Luminita Gheorghiu