Sunday, December 07, 2008

Romanian Film Festival: Gruber’s Journey

Given the slate of prestige pictures releasing soon for the upcoming award season, American and British filmmakers seem to have overcome their past reluctance to address the Holocaust cinematically (two such films will be reviewed this coming week). However, that has not been the case in Romania, where the notorious Iaşi Pogrom is a particularly delicate subject to broach. Director Radu Gabrea has been the rare exception, making both documentaries and dramatic features about the Jewish experience in Romania. His latest film, Gruber’s Journey, screening this weekend at the Third Annual Romanian Film Festival, presents the tragic events of Iaşi, from the perspective of an outsider.

Evidently, Journey is also notable as a rare Romanian film in which the central protagonist is not Romanian. In this case, it is the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte, who was a member of the Italian Fascist Party, though not always in good standing due to his gadfly tendencies. He was indeed in Iaşi, or Jassy as it also known, immediately following the massive round-up of the city’s Jewish population. He later wrote a very critical account of the incident in his novel Kaputt. In Journey, Gabrea suggests a fictional story to explain Malaparte’s ultimate disillusionment with Fascism.

Assigned to cover the Russian front for the Italian news service, Malaparte is traveling east with Col. Freitag of the Wehrmacht and the deputy commander of the local Romanian garrison. It is all quite chummy and pleasant except for the severe allergy attack plaguing the writer. He has a referral from a doctor in Bucharest for a world-class allergist, Dr. Josef Gruber, but when Malaparte reaches Iaşi, Dr. Gruber is nowhere to be found.

After enduring a local hack doctor’s battery of sedatives to no avail, Malaparte sets out to find Gruber. What follows is a Kafkaesque story of bureaucratic runaround, as the sinus-challenged Fascist attempts to locate Gruber’s transport. It is not simply a case of Romanians lacking German efficiency. To produce Gruber would imply a level of knowledge and culpability that none of the local Romanians want to assume, despite earning laurels mere days earlier for their actions in the pogrom.

Journey is a deliberately bloodless and intellectual film. It helps to appreciate it if you understand the trajectory Malaparte life will follow. Gabrea shows the audience nothing directly. Instead, we watch Malaparte put together the pieces. Why is the local pharmacy a mad house? Because their two closest competitors suddenly shuttered their doors at the same time Gruber disappeared. Inescapably, a pattern emerges. Throughout the film, Gabrea slowly builds towards Malaparte’s final moment of epiphany. It is a subtle payoff, but nicely turned by Florin Piersic, Jr. Perhaps the greatest standout in the cast though is German actor Udo Schenk, uncomfortably convincing as Freitag.

Undoubtedly, some will be troubled by Journey’s antiseptic approach, relying on the audience to supply its own visions of the horrors that have happened in Iaşi. The attempts at absurdist humor did not seem particularly amusing either (perhaps because I have a very high degree of empathy for anyone trapped in the Hell of bureaucracy). It is a film pitched at the head rather than the heart, which is quite ambitious given the dramatic nature of its subject. It screens again today as part of the Romanian Film Festival at the Tribeca Cinema.