Aferim! is almost a black comedy except that the reality it portrays is a bit too awful to be funny. Shot in black-and-white, the film takes place in Wallachia in 1835 during a period in which Turks were in charge and Roma (Gypsies) were slaves.

Costandin, a boorish constable, accompanied by his teenaged son, Ionita, is sent by a rich landowner to track down and bring back an escaped slave, Carfin, who fled after having sex with the landowner’s wife. It doesn’t take them that long to capture Carfin, who then spends most of the journey back pleading to be released while slung over the back of a horse. Ionita idolizes his father, but less and less so after becoming exposed to his value system.

This is probably a period in Romanian history that many Romanians would rather not acknowledge, particularly as representatives of the Church follow a version of Christianity that would have made Jesus’ hair stand on end. Indeed, one of Aferim!‘s highlights is a rant in which a priest runs through a record-setting recitation of ethnic and religious slurs. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this appalling overt racism persists 180 years later.

The title, Aferim, is a Turkish-origin word meaning “Bravo,” which the characters say to each other at inappropriate times.