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In director Radu Gabrea's Gruber's Journey the Romanian cinema gets it's first film seriously approaching the painful theme of the episodes of the Holocaust that took place in Romania between 1940 when the dictator Ion Antonescu took power (in collaboration for the first four and a half months of his regime with the extreme nationalistic Iron Guard movement) until August 1944 when the king deposed Antonescu and made Romania join the Allied for the last period of the war. One of the bloodiest episodes of this period was the pogrom and massacre of more than 13,000 Jews in the Eastern Romania town of Iasi (Yashi, Jassy) in the first days of the war. For many years the Romanian history books ignored or minimized the events, but the truth became more and more evident in the last ten years, despite efforts of Holocaust deniers who still try to hide the responsibility of the Romanian authorities of those times.
A veteran of Romania cinema, Radu Gabrea is not at his first film dealing with sensitive events in the Romanian history. In The Beheaded Rooster (Cocosul decapitat) he described the same period but looked at the events from the perspective of the German population in Romania, part of which collaborated with the Nazis. I did not like that movie but appreciated the courage in dealing with the subject. In Gruber's Journey Gabrea relies on very solid premises, using the memories of the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte who as a war correspondent visited the city soon after the events and mentioned them in his novel Kapput.
The story in the film describes Malaparte's arrival in the city in the first days after Romania entered the war as an ally of Nazi Germany, in June 1941. The war has started, but what bothers Malaparte is a terrible allergy that can be cured by a specialist residing in Iasi. That doctor is not easy to find however, chaos reigns, people cannot be found where they are supposed to be, the Balkan mentality of corruption and disorder seems to be only amplified by the war, and above all the doctor happens to be a Jew. Something terrible seems to have happened to the Jews in this city, but nobody speaks open about this or when they do double-speak hides the facts, the army and the police throw responsibility one on the other. The military commander of the region will be suspended, but not for the loss of the lives of the Jews (he actually is congratulated by dictator Antonescu for the efficient handling of the events) but for allowing its soldiers to rampage through the domain of a count and destroy his wine cellar. The film which starts in a comical register where the innocent Italian writer meets the eternal Romania of playwright Caragiale's heroes, turns into a dramatic confrontation with the horrors of crimes of war.
The team of actors does an excellent job, starting with Florin Piersic Jr. as Malaparte despite the fact that he is or looks just too young for the role, Malaparte was 42 by the time of the events described in the film. Marcel Iures has a short but memorable presence on screen as Gruber, while Claudiu Bleont and Razvan Vasilescu play the chiefs of the army and of the local prosecution office in the greatest and best tradition of Caragiale.
While the international breakthrough of the Romanian cinema was due mainly to films describing the period of 'transition' after the fall of the Communism, the re-evaluation of the past was never out of the interest of Romanian film makers. The exception was the Holocaust period, and this is the first good and courageous film on this subject. Hopefully other will follow.
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