In 1981, when Pope John Paul II named Jean-Marie Lustiger archbishop of Paris, Lustiger felt conflicted, even burdened: “For me, this nomination was as if, all of a sudden, the crucifix began to wear a yellow star,” Lustiger told a reporter at the time.
Ilan Duran Cohen’s riveting new French-language film, “The Jewish Cardinal,” explores the reasons behind this startling statement, spotlighting Lustiger’s intense struggle with his complex dual identities as a Catholic and a Jew. The drama will screen as the closing-night film of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on May 8. (The festival is a program of TRIBE Media Corp., which produces the Jewish Journal.)
The movie tells of how the priest — born Aaron Lustiger to Polish-Jewish immigrants in France in 1926 — survives the Holocaust in hiding with a Christian woman and fervently converts to Catholicism at age 14, even as his mother dies in Auschwitz. Lustiger’s father, who survives the war, staunchly opposes his son’s conversion. Nevertheless, Lustiger goes on to be ordained a priest in 1954, rising swiftly through the ranks of the Roman-Catholic Church, to be named a cardinal in 1983. He also becomes a close confident of John Paul II (who will be canonized on April 27; see Michael Berenbaum’s column, Page 16).
“You’re a shameful Jew,” Lustiger’s father tells him in one scene in which the two men almost come to blows.
Lustiger (Laurent Lucas) is clearly anguished by his father’s rejection, as well as by that of Jewish and Catholic observers infuriated by his declaration that he is both Christian and Jewish. In one scene, several priests accost Lustiger, shouting, “Don’t Jew up the gospel,” and, “Get your people to accept responsibility for killing our Lord.”
But the cardinal — nicknamed “Monsieur Bulldozer” for his stubborn, sometimes mercurial temperament — ultimately comes to terms with his dual identities, in part, by helping to build bridges between Christians and Jews, by arranging for Pope John Paul II to visit Israel and convincing the pontiff to remove the Carmelite nuns who had set up a convent inside Auschwitz in the 1980s. In 2007, as he is dying of bone and lung cancer, the cardinal requests that a cousin recite the Kaddish prayer for him at his funeral, in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.
The film unabashedly explores all of Lustiger’s contradictions — even though Duran Cohen said he was initially reluctant when his co-screenwriter, Chantal Derudder, approached him with the idea for the biopic five years ago. “I cannot say that I liked the character from the start,” the 51-year-old French Jewish writer-director said from Tel Aviv, where he had traveled to celebrate Passover.
Duran Cohen grew up in a traditional Sephardic home in Paris, where members of his Jewish community felt that Lustiger “was somebody who had betrayed the Jews,” he said. “His conversion and that he became a cardinal was painted somehow with shame.”
During those early years, Duran Cohen encountered his share of anti-Semitism: “There’s still a case about the Jews in France,” he said. “As I grew up, I was ‘the Jew,’ basically; I couldn’t hide behind a French name.”
It was only while studying filmmaking at New York University in the late 1980s that Duran Cohen came to terms with his Jewishness, noting that in the United States, “Jews are not outcasts but a normal part of the community.”
And so, the writer-director remained ambivalent about Lustiger until he discovered that the cardinal’s mother had died at Auschwitz; he was further intrigued when he learned about Lustiger’s successful attempts to help remove the nuns who had erected a giant cross at the camp, on the very site where the Nazis had stored their lethal Zyklon B poison for the gas chambers.
“And then I became fascinated by Lustiger’s identity crisis, which tore him apart,” said Duran Cohen, who is a novelist as well as a filmmaker. (Duran Cohen’s previous film “Les amants du Flore” (2006) explored the relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.)
“I was born in Israel, but I don’t speak Hebrew; I am a Jew living in France with immigrant parents, so I’m also kind of torn.”
Yet, as he approached the project, Duran Cohen said, he feared that the film would be denounced on all sides. “It’s not an authorized biography, so the church and Lustiger’s family was scared of the movie,” he explained. “I was also very, very scared, because this film was dangerous and full of traps. I didn’t know anything about Catholicism, and I didn’t want the film to be perceived as propaganda somehow against Lustiger. I wanted to be nonjudgmental, and as fair as possible. … So I felt a bit like the main character, who was trying to find the right balance between identities — because in approaching the movie, I felt totally unbalanced.”
Thus, Duran Cohen, along with Derudder, immersed himself in five years’ worth of meticulous research on Lustiger; in one telling interview, soon after he became archbishop, the priest insisted that “I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable to many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope, and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”
While the specifics of Lustiger’s faith ultimately remained a mystery to Duran Cohen, the filmmaker found clues as to why the cardinal staunchly maintained that he was still Jewish. “Even though spiritually he was a true Catholic, he didn’t want to deny his mother’s death at Auschwitz or to be cut off from his family,” the director said. “He was also a child survivor during the war, and therefore a victim of the war somehow.”
“The young convert Lustiger found [Catholicism] to be a life jacket through which he could try to get through the reality of the martyrdom of his mother,” Lucas said through a translator in an e-mail.
But when production of “The Jewish Cardinal” began in summer 2012, the project was perceived as so controversial that not a single cathedral in the Paris archdiocese would allow Duran Cohen to shoot on its premises; the filmmaker and his team had to make do with smaller cathedrals outside the French capital whose officials were not as squeamish about the subject matter.
Duran Cohen re-created the scenes at Auschwitz, in part, at a train museum in Paris: “Those were very hard for me because some of the wagons had almost certainly been used to transport Jews to the camps,” he said. “So it was a very heavy experience, but we brought those emotions to the film.”
One of the most excruciating scenes in “The Jewish Cardinal” takes place as Lustiger visits Auschwitz for the first time, dropping to his knees on the train tracks, sobbing, and is so overwhelmed that he can recite neither the Lord’s Prayer nor Kaddish for his mother. “I wanted the character to appear paralyzed and suffocated, as if he were surrounded by walls crushing in on him,” Duran Cohen said.
“That’s the point at which he is at a crossroads with his identity; he is there in the camp where his mother and millions of Jews died, all the while wearing his dress as a cardinal. But it’s the beginning of his coming to terms with that conflict.”
“The Jewish Cardinal” ultimately played to sold-out audiences at the New York Jewish Film Festival this year and has received good reviews, with The Hollywood Reporter noting its “uncommon depth and nuance.”
“I don’t think Lustiger’s family is at ease with the film, but they’re somehow happy that the world now knows more about him,” the director said.
Nevertheless, Duran Cohen added, “I came out of this film totally drained; I couldn’t do anything for a year. I was so exhausted physically and emotionally, that it’s so good now for me to be in Israel.”
“The Jewish Cardinal” will screen at the ArcLight Cinemas, Sherman Oaks, on May 8 at 7:30 p.m. Following the screening, Naomi Pfefferman will moderate a question-and-answer session with Duran Cohen and Rabbi Mark Diamond, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, as well as with Father Alexei Smith, ecumenical and interreligious officer of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
For tickets and information about the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, which takes place May 1-8, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.