Sometimes it takes a film like this to remind me why I love films. As a film critic after being beaten down by subpar film after subpar film you sometimes lose sight of how powerful and satisfying the art form can be. Le Métis de Dieu or The Jewish Cardinal by director Ilan Duran Cohen is an eye opening true story about Jean-Marie Lustiger, a man of Jewish Polish origins who went on to become a Catholic cardinal and the advisor to Pope John Paul II in the mid to late 80s.
At the age of 14 Aaron Lustiger, a Polish Jew whose family fled for France after World War I, decides that he wants to become like Jesus, a Jew who was a leader in the Catholic church, so he converts. He takes on the name Jean-Marie. This breaks the heart of his father and as a result the relationship between father and son, even as Jean-Marie (Laurent Lucas – Gerry, In My Skin) becomes an adult, is precarious.
As he reaches middle age Father Lustiger gets the somewhat shocking news that Pope John Paul II has named him the Bishop of Orléans. He hops on his moped and travels to his father’s (Henri Guybet) hosiery shop to tell him and his cousin Fanny (Audrey Dana) the news. He should not have been surprised about his father’s less than enthusiastic reaction as he is a man who sees his son as rejecting his culture and heritage.
Still stinging from that encounter he blurts out to a journalist working at a religious paper in Paris that he is a Jew who has chosen to become a Catholic; Lustiger is not rejecting his heritage. Instead of causing controversy with his steadfast assertion that he remains Jewish and his development of a radio station which he uses to bring French Catholics back into the fold, he once again attracts the attention of the Pope, who tells him that he is going to make him a cardinal and his advisor in short order.
Cardinal dual identity as Jewish and Catholic causes him some problems personally and religiously. He feels pulled in both directions as pioneers often are. Though he is conflicted one thing he is not conflicted about is that the decision by John Paul II to allow a convent to be built on the site of Auschwitz is wrong and the nuns residing there is a slap in the collective Jewish face. A principled man known affectionately as “le bulldozer” is not going to back down even to the Pope.
Going into the film I knew nothing about Jean-Marie Lustiger and owe a debt of thanks to this film for bringing him and his life to me. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the depiction of the man, what I can vouch for is the quality of the film. I appreciated that Ilan Duran Cohen and Laurent Lucas made him human – a man with faults and strengths. A realistic and relatable character. Sometimes in films of a religious nature you cannot grasp on to anything because the main character(s) are depicted as almost saintly. Such is not the case with Lustiger as he smokes, rides a moped, swears, shows weakness, is stubborn, yells, and has a temper. Those so-called faults are what make him likeable. Perfection is boring whereas being truly human with flaws, etc. is much more interesting. This man who pushed for interfaith dialogue is worthy of having his tale told.
Besides the excellent portrayal what drew me in was the story a Catholic cardinal who did not reject his Jewish heritage, how John Paul II was involved in the bringing down of Communism in Poland and the battle between Jews and Catholics over Auschwitz being the site of a Carmelite convent. As somewhat of a history buff and someone who was alive while this was going on I am thankful to the film for shedding light on a story I knew nothing about. Interesting to see how many Poles were not concerned about the Jews or even completely ignorant about what went on at the infamous concentration camp.
Everything added together makes for a very powerful watch. The message of the film is a deep and important one. Regardless of what religion or culture you come from or claim underneath it all we are all human first and foremost. Sometimes this is forgotten and we allow things to divide us that should bring us together. Cohen hits the mark in his telling of the story of part of the life of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger.