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No, its title is not an oxymoron. Rather, The Jewish Cardinal refers to Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism at a young age and, after joining the priesthood, quickly rose up the ranks to become Archbishop of Paris and a chief advisor to Pope Jean Paul II. Ilan Duran Cohen’s revelatory biopic recounts this fascinating tale in thoughtful and compelling fashion, aided by the superb lead performance by Laurent Lucas.
Born the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Lustiger and his sister were sent to live with a Catholic woman in Orleans during the German occupation of France in 1940. Against his parents’ wishes, he decided to convert when he was just 13 and was baptized. By the time the war ended, his mother had been murdered in Auschwitz, while his father survived.
The film picks up the story well into Lustiger’s distinguished career, around the time he was made the Archbishop of Paris in 1981. The city’s chief rabbi, as well as many church officials, is skeptical of the appointment, pointedly telling him, “One is Christian or Jewish, not both.”
Cohen’s screenplay co-written with Chantal Derudder sensitively explores the complexities of Lustiger’s position in such deeply moving scenes as when he refuses to say Kaddish for his father, reducing his cousin to anguished tears. At the same time, the story is also infused with generous doses of humor, particularly in scenes between Lustiger and Pope John Paul II (Aurelien Recoing) in which the latter proudly shows off his new bullet-proof “Popemobile” and teases Lustiger by saying, “You’re a real Jewish mother to me.”
The story’s chief dramatic element revolves around a dispute concerning the controversial installation of a convent by Carmelite nuns on the Auschwitz grounds, prompting Lustiger, who obviously had deep emotional ties to the site, to question his religious allegiances.
As portrayed by Lucas, Lustiger emerges as a vitally human figure, prone to bouts of anger, self-justification and self-doubt that prevent the film from lapsing into turgid religious hagiography. He’s well matched by Recoing, who entertainingly conveys the pope’s charismatic and playful personality.
Although it will obviously appeal to religious audiences — it has already played in nearly a dozen Jewish film festivals — The Jewish Cardinal features a rare nuance that should interest the non-faithful as well.
Opens: April 11 (Film Movement)
Production: A Plus Image 4, Arte France, Arte, Euro Media France, Fugitive Productions, Scarlett Production, TV5 Monde
Cast: Laurent Lucas, Aurelien Recoing, Audrey Dana, Pascal Greggory, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet
Director: Ilan Duran Cohen
Screenwriters: Ilan Duran Cohen, Chantal Derudder
Producers: Elan Duran Cohen, Joey Fare
Director of photography: Christophe Graillot
Editors: Fabrice Roudaud
Composer: Nathaniel Mechaly
Not rated, 100 minutes
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