Sunday, May 18, 2014

Ilan Duran Cohen's intelligent, thoughtful bit of religious/social history, THE JEWISH CARDINAL

Were I to imagine the right director for a quietly thoughtful, intelligent and emotionally resonant (with no melodrama) movie about the Jewish convert to Catholicism who went on to become a Cardinal and then Archbishop of Paris, Ilan Duran Cohen would probably have been the last filmmaker I'd have come up with. Among this writer/director's best-known work are two terrific movies -- Confusion of Genders and The Joy of Singing -- that deal with sex in several of its many forms and are, in their funny and outrageous manner, rather ground-breaking. Now, here comes Cohen, giving us a serious, worthy film about a man and his religions -- one abandoned, another embraced -- and how he tries to somehow unite both them and the folk who follow them.

THE JEWISH CARDINAL ("God's Crossbreed" in its original and more interesting French title, Le métis de Dieu) tells the extremely worthwhile (even, I think, to us atheists) tale of Jean-Maire Lustiger, a Jew born to Polish immigrants in France, who converted as a child to Catholicism, yet insisted on maintaining his cultural identity as a Jew, even as he rose to extraordinary prominence in the Catholic Church. M. Cohen, show at right, has managed to turn out a movie (made for French television, by the way) that places emphasis on what M. Lustiger, our Cardinal, tried to accomplish. Rather than give us the usual "history-of-the-guy" approach, he incorporates neatly only some of this information into his brainy screenplay, and concentrates instead on the man's insistence on bringing these two important religions together (he is often reminding his listeners that Jesus was, after all, a Jew).

I am taking it as "gospel" that the events and personages in the film are based on truth, even if how these events and people interacted has been fictionalized. Chief among the characters here is the "Polish Pope," John-Paul II, played by the wonderful Aurélien Recoing (above), to whom our Cardinal becomes a kind of confidant. What transpires between these two men is simply fascinating. Even an Anti-Papist like me came away from this film with some respect for the intelligence of that particular Pope.

The film reaches its real theme and climax in the tale of how the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, built and run by the Nazis in occupied Poland during World War II, became involved in a kind of tug-of-war between Polish Catholics and Jews from across the world, as the horrifically anti-Semitic Poles try to install a permanent convent on the Auschwitz grounds. The filmmaker allows us to observe all this from several angles: those of the Jews and the Poles, and especially that of the Vatican, where our Cardinal (played with restraint but only partially buried emotion by the fine Laurent Lucas, above and on poster, top) becomes the man who must somehow work this out to the benefit of all parties. This is not easy, and the fact that Duran makes its ins-and-outs both intelligible and understandable is an accomplishment.

While the film is full of beautiful, high-end church scenery (above and below), the only other characters of importance here are Lustiger's cousin, Fanny,  played by Audrey Dana; Albert Decourtray, Archbishop of Lyon, played by Pascal Greggory; and Lustiger's assistant, Father Julien, played by Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. (This talented young actor is building quite a versatile resume, having now appeared in roles so different in everything from Love Songs and Black Heaven to The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Princess of Montpensier.)

One of the nicest surprises of The Jewish Cardinal is that, although M. Cohen works wonders when the subject of sex is at hand, here, in a film regarding the Catholic Church, about which the now reams of sex scandals approaches the mythic, the filmmaker stays on point and simply ignores any overt sexuality. However, it seemed clear to both me and my spouse that the Father Julien character did indeed love and was in love with our Cardinal. This is never stated in any way, but thanks to the sweet and so genuine performance of M. Leprince-Ringuet, shown below, it comes through strongly yet never obviously.

The Jewish Cardinal, another quite worthwhile choice from Film Movement and running 96 minutes, will appear on DVD and via Netflix streaming this coming Tuesday, May 20, while also being available for purchase or rental from Film Movement itself.

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