Movie review of “Aferim!”: This tale, about a lawman/bounty hunter pursuing a Gypsy slave, is set in Romania, 1835, where life is nasty and the social practices are as harsh as the desolate landscape. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Welcome to Walachia (aka Romania), 1835, where life is nasty, brutish and … brutish.

Welcome to the land of “Aferim!” — a place where the social practices are as harsh as the dusty, desolate landscape in which this Romanian-language picture is set.

Feudalism is alive and well here, as is slavery. The slaves are Gypsies, abused, degraded, disparaged as “crows” and, when they flee their servitude, hunted relentlessly until they can be captured and returned to their owners who mete out punishments that are barbaric in the extreme.

Movie Review ★★★  

‘Aferim!,’ with Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Cuzin Toma, Alexandru Dabija, Mihaela Sîrbu. Directed by Radu Jude, from a screenplay by Jude and Florin Lazarescu. 106 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (sexual acts, violence, language). In Romanian, with English subtitles. SIFF Film Center.

“Aferim!” tells the tale of such a pursuit, conducted by a lawman/bounty hunter named Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), a callow teenager. Their quarry is Carfin (Cuzin Toma), a Gypsy accused of committing adultery with the wife (Mihaela Sîrbu) of his owner, a powerful local ruler called a boyar (Alexandru Dabija).

Father and son first appear as two riders on a high ridgeline, suggesting a linkage to a classic Western. When they descend, director/co-writer Radu Jude (Florin Lazarescu shares screenplay credit) plunges the audience into a society riven by prejudices of all kinds. Turks, Russians, Jews, gays, Gypsies: All are despised with equal passion, as the pair’s encounters with people along the way make volubly clear. Costandin, a man of his times, embraces much of the toxicity; his son, a less closed-minded sort, not so much.

Through threats and intimidation of the Gypsy populace, Costandin finally tracks down Carfin, slings him facedown and protesting over the saddle, and rides back toward the escapee’s destiny.

It’s in this latter part of the picture that the hunter’s character is revealed to be more nuanced than it seems at the outset. He’s a man dedicated to carrying out his responsibilities — “I have always been fair,” he asserts — but not particularly eager to do so this time around because he perceives there may be extenuating circumstances in Carfin’s case. More significantly, he begins to perceive his prey as human.

Shot in stark black and white, the picture’s sense of place and time is strong — pungently so. In a long scene set in a smoky, jampacked inn where drunken singing and prostitution are the prime entertainments, you can practically smell the unwashed bodies and see the vermin and the lice as all the guests jam together on the straw-covered floor to sleep it off.

And that’s “Aferim!” An unsparing look at a land without pity.