It’s only now that I had the occasion to see ‘La vingt-cinquième heure’ (The 25th Hour, or ‘Ora 25′ in Romanian) a film made exactly 50 years ago. In 1967, was at the peak of his acting career and popularity. Three years before he had brought to screen Alexis Zorba, the most memorable of his characters in Zorba the Greek. A year later he was going to be Leon Alastray in Guns for San Sebastian and another year after mayor Bombolini in The Secret of Santa Vittoria. The director was , also close to the peak of his career. The book that inspired the movie however had been published almost two decades earlier, in 1949, the same year that Orwell published his ’1984′. The reference is not simply coincidental. While there is a gap of fame and maybe also of literary quality between the two books, ‘Ora 25′ written by a Romanian exiled named Constatin Virgil Gheorghiu, who was running away from the Communist regime that had taken over his country, and Orwell’s masterpiece deal with the same theme – the absurdity of the fate of the single individuals crushed by the wheels of history.

 

source http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062445

source http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062445

 

While Orwell’s ’1984′ was looking into the future, making the novel to belong to the genre of the political futuristic dystopia, Gheorghiu’s novel was set in the recent past (of his time) and derived directly from his personal experience in the second world war. There are some problems here, which folks familiar with the biography of the writer and the history of Romania prior and during WWII will recognize, but which will get lost to many other of the other viewers of the film. The film starts in 1939, in a quasi-idyllic Romania, where peasants prosper, but racial laws against the Jews start to be implemented. This may be almost right, only the details in the film are wrong. Deportation of Jews to work camps did not begin until 1941, when Romania entered the war as an ally of Germany. Germany did not occupy Romania in October 1940 as claimed in the movie. There were German troops in the country but that’s different, they were allied to Romania. It was not king Carol the 2nd who started the deportations, and actually by October 1940 he was gone, having abdicated one month earlier, after Romania had lost parts of his territory to the USSR, Hungary and Bulgaria. The real responsible of most of the Jewish persecutions and deportations was the regime of fascist dictator Ion Antonescu, the one under which the writer, Virgil Gheorghiu served as a minor rank diplomat. There is a subtle but hard to accept deformation of history here, and a dose of self-absolution in his own identification with the main character and with another supporting character, the anti-Fascist writer (role played by ) who in the film writes a book with the same name.

 

(video source CG Entertainment)

 

All these historic details are important certainly for the historical record, for Romanian and Jews who lived the period and their successors. Not that much maybe for the film itself. The story of the Romanian peasant denounced and deported as a Jew by the chief of police in the village who had put an eye on his beautiful and virtuous wife () develops as a Kafka-esque story of injustice and fight to survive in the absurd universe of the Europe devastated by war. , the eternal optimist and and unbreakable human being from Zorba builds on screen another character of the same caliber. We need however to appreciate the courageous approach of the authors of the script and especially of director Henri Verneuil who dared balance horror and humor in describing the saga of the wanderings of Johann/Yankele Moritz – successively confused as Jew, Romanian spy, Nazi – always on the losing side, always beaten but never losing hope. At a time when the WWII conflict was still described on screens on heroic style and manichaeistic terms, the authors of this film created an emotional and human story, and a character that anticipates by almost three decades the ones in the films of and about the Holocaust. After an initial quite conventional start the viewer nowadays will discover a film with a catching story, deep significance and wonderful acting.