Aurélien Recoing as Pope John Paul II and Laurent Lucas as Cardinal Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger in The Jewish Cardinal. Photo courtesy of GAT PR

Film examines Cardinal's Lustiger's conflict between his roots, Catholicism

  • May 6, 2014

In the era in which Catholics saw their first Polish pope, the Church in France saw its first Jewish cardinal.         

Aaron Lustiger was born in Paris to Polish Jews in 1926. His mother, Gisèle, died in Auschwitz in 1943, a victim of the Holocaust, an event that would haunt Lustiger and his father, Charles. Though it would hurt his father, Lustiger converted to Catholicism at age 14, taking the second name Jean-Marie. Viewing himself as a fulfilled Jew, it is his existence as both Jew and Christian in a society that refuses to accept him as both that tests his faith, his career and his loyalties.

Lustiger’s life and struggles, from moments before he learns Pope John Paul II has appointed him Bishop of Orléans, is presented in The Jewish Cardinal (Le métis de Dieu), a French film about the flawed, yet tough Parisian priest known as Lulu to his friends and nicknamed Msgr. Bulldozer by his parishioners. The film was on screen May 6 and 8 at the 2014 Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

“When I converted, I felt the most Jewish of Jews. I had acknowledged Christ, Israel’s Messiah. I felt the most Christian of Christians because I am Jewish, like Jesus,” says actor Laurent Lucas, who plays Lustiger in the film.

Lucas portrays the sometimes conflicted Parisian priest as tempermental, yet passionate.

“I wanted to embody Jewish and Christian reconciliation. All my life, I’ve tried to hold together both branches of the Testament,” he said. “I am God’s mixed child.”

Upon his first visit to Rome as bishop, Lustiger wastes no time confronting the pope at a private meal the two share. He asks the pontiff, half accusingly, if he was made bishop because he was a convert. The pontiff ends up scolding Lustiger for stirring trouble in France by overemphasizing his Jewish roots. The bishop in turn tells John Paul that he refuses to be a doormat. The pope admires this trait and asks the bishop to help him restore Jesus’ place in a society that has lost its faith. By the end of the meal their friendship forms. By the end of Lustiger’s trip to Rome, their brotherly bond begins.

Aurélien Recoing plays a vibrant, playful and likeable Pope John Paul II who is politically astute and a master of diplomacy. Both strong personalities who called each other by their first names, it is Karol and Jean-Marie’s ongoing love and respect for one another, but occasional penchant for arguing, that largely shapes this movie.

“The strength of the converted is having chosen their faith,” says John Paul II.

The pope would eventually go on to name Lustiger archbishop of Paris and then cardinal. The cardinal is then thrown into conflict when Carmelite nuns set up a convent in Auschwitz and he is called upon to take action. Lustiger would effect change not only in France, but in Poland. He would face the Jewish community who asked him to deny his heritage and the Catholic culture that would encourage him not to readily advertise it. When it came to striking the right balance as identifying as both Jew and Christian, sometimes he would succeed and sometimes he would fail. But his character in the film was always certain his two identities were compatible and complimentary.

Lustiger died in 2007 at age 80.

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