Moving ‘Jewish Cardinal’ explores heritage, identity

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“The Jewish Cardinal” tells the moving, true story of Jean-Marie Aaron Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism as a child, became a priest and rose in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy while still insisting on retaining his Jewish heritage. Lustiger’s stubborn stance caused controversy and opposition in both the Jewish and Catholic communities – even within his own family.

With lovely photography, fine acting and an affecting dramatic arc, director/writer Ilan Duran Cohen’s film explores themes of tolerance, identity and understanding in this hopeful interfaith story. This thought-provoking film is the closing night selection for this year’s St. Louis Jewish Film Festival. 

Lustiger was the Paris-born child of Jewish immigrants from Poland who, like a number of  Jewish parents during the Shoah, hid their children by placing them with a Christian family. At age 13, instead of a bar mitzvah, the boy converts to Christianity, creating a lifelong problem with his understandably dismayed father. 

Although he changed his religion and even became a priest, Lustiger (played as an adult by Laurent Lucas) insisted on maintaining his Jewish identity and connections to his father (Henri Guybet) and cousin Fanny (Audrey Dana), his only surviving family. 

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Rather than creating a straightforward biopic,Cohen focuses on the issues of tolerance and understanding between different faiths. The priest is preparing for a hoped-for posting in Israel by studying Hebrew when he gets a call from a church superior. Instead of a post in Israel, Lustiger is promoted to bishop and assigned to Orleans, France. When media coverage reveals the priest’s previously private views on his Jewish identity, Catholic and Jewish groups object. But the new bishop finds acceptance among his congregation and the Catholic hierarchy, particularly Pope John Paul II (Aurélien Recoing), a Pole like Lustiger’s family.  

A restless, high-energy, chain-smoking dynamo, the outspoken Lustiger has little patience with intolerance and is not afraid to stand up for what he believes. As Lustiger becomes close to the pope, he comes to play an important role in promoting interfaith understanding when a group of Polish nuns try to establish a convent on the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Lustiger’s mother was killed. 

“The Jewish Cardinal” is an emotionally moving film that spotlights a remarkable person. The mix of historical events, family issues and personal exploration of identity invites thought and encourages human understanding. It provides a moving finish for the festival.   

‘The Jewish Cardinal’

8 p.m. Thursday, June 12

Running time: 1:40; in French with English subtitles