The Jewish Cardinal is as rich in contradictions and complexities as its title suggests. The film is based on the life of Jean-Marie Lustiger (Laurent Lucas), who was born of Jewish parents in 1926, converted to Catholicism at age 14 and eventually entered the priesthood. While this unlikely saga is certainly worthy of attention, director Ilan Duran Cohen is interested in a much larger canvas, and uses Lustiger’s story as a backdrop for a candid reexamination of 1980s politics and the reign of Pope John Paul II.
In the early 1980s, Pope John Paul II was something of a rockstar, having survived an assassination attempt and was closely associated with the popular freedom movement in his native Poland. As portrayed by Aurélien Recoing of la Comédie Française, the vibrant Pontiff is clearly a political animal and through a series of rapid promotions, Lustiger soon finds himself Bishop of Paris. The Pope encourages Lustiger to publicly discuss and embrace his Jewish background. But what Lustiger thinks of as an outreach initiative soon takes on shadowy motives when the Church attempts to open a convent on the site of Auschwitz, inciting a loud and angry protest from the Jewish community and leaving Lustiger questioning his commitment to the idea of papal infallibility.
Christophe Graillot’s wonderful photography bathes both smokey flats and the gilded splendor of the Vatican in an ethereal glow. Lucas and Recoing attack their roles with rare sensitivity and subtlety, providing a masterclass in the art of naturalism. Cohen’s screenplay hits nary a false beat, and wisely limits the story to constructing the foundation for a single pivotal moment; a moment that serves as a soul altering revelation for both men.
The Jewish Cardinal is a film that demands clear-eyed attention and the willingness to ponder. It deals with big historical contexts through the minutia of human connections in ways that often find the truth hiding just offscreen. Beneath the facile words of homilies and the strictures of ancient traditions lurk the noble aspirations, foul brutalities and selfish schemes of man. The film offers a glimpse into an unsettled era that encompassed all these aspects, and helps us realize that sometimes we are doing the work of the divine by simply venturing on.