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, Anthony Quinn 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 Henri Verneuil, 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.
While Orwell's '1984' was looking into the future, making the novel to belong to the genre of political futuristic dystopia, Gheorghiu's novel was set in the recent past and derived directly from his personal experience in the Second World War . There are some problems here, which people familiar with the biography of the writer and the history of Romania before and during WWII will recognize, but which will be lost to many 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 movie are wrong. Deportation of Jews to work camps did not begin until 1941, when Romania entered the war as a 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, who started the deportations, and in 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 responsibility of most of the Jewish persecutions and deportations was the regime of the fascist dictator Ion Antonescu, the one under which 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-dissolution in his own identification with the main character and with another supporting character, the anti-fascist writer (role played by Serge Reggiani) who in the film Writes a book with the same name.
All these historical details are important for the historical record, for Romanians 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 the police in the village who had a look at his beautiful and virtuous wife (Virna Lisi) develops as a Kafka-esque story of injustice and struggle to survive in the Absurd universe of Europe devastated by war. Anthony Quinn, the eternal optimist and unbreakable human being from Zorba builds on another character of the same caliber. We must appreciate, however, 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 lose hope. At the 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 those in the films of Radu Mihaileanu and Roberto Benigni about the Holocaust. After an initial quite conventional start, the viewer will now discover a movie with a catching story, deep meaning and wonderful acting.