Sunday, January 10, 2010

NYJFF ‘10: Gruber’s Journey

In recent years, American, Israeli, and Western European filmmakers have not been reluctant to address the Holocaust on film. However, that has not been the case in Romania, where the notorious Iaşi Pogrom remains a particularly delicate subject to broach. Director Radu Gabrea has been the rare exception, producing both documentaries and dramatic features about the Jewish experience in Romania. Produced with a willful disregard for the Romanian box office, Gabrea presents the tragic events of Iaşi from the perspective of a non-Romanian outsider in his latest film, Gruber’s Journey (trailer here), which screens Wednesday and Thursday at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

A complicated historical figure, the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte was indeed a member of the Italian Fascist Party, though not always in good standing due to his gadfly tendencies. As fate would dictate, he was in Iaşi, or Jassy as it also known, immediately following the massive round-up of the city’s Jewish population and would incorporate a very critical account of the incident into his novel Kaputt. In Journey, Gabrea suggests a fictional story to explain Malaparte’s ultimate disillusionment with Italy’s allies and Fascism in general.

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 mysteriously 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 cerebral film. 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, disturbingly convincing as the charming but ruthless 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. Indeed, its attempts at absurdist humor often seem more uncomfortable than amusing. Understanding the trajectory Malaparte’s life will follow though, would probably help foster an appreciation of the coldly intellectual film portrayal. 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 at the Walter Reade Theater Wednesday (1/13) and Thursday (1/14) during the New York Jewish Film Festival.