Jean-Marie Lustiger (Laurent Lucas) in “The Jewish Cardinal” // Film Movement
“If you don’t battle your characters, it’s very boring,” said French filmmaker Ilan Duran Cohen. For his latest movie, “The Jewish Cardinal,” he chose as his subject Jean-Marie Lustiger, one of the most divisive figures of Jewish — or should we say Christian? — life in France. Lustiger, the cardinal and archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005, was born with the first name Aaron to Polish Jewish immigrants and converted to Christianity at the age of 13, against his parents’ wishes.
A staunch conservative nicknamed “Bulldozer,” Lustiger made a high-flying career in the Catholic Church, becoming an influential voice in the French Catholic Church and a confidante of Pope John Paul II. At the same time, Lustiger, whose mother had died in Auschwitz, maintained that he was Jewish — which drew hostility from both Jews and Catholics. The movie focuses on the role Lustiger played in negotiating the departure of the Carmelite nuns who set up a convent in Auschwitz between 1984 and 1993, which fully displays Lustiger’s dual and paradoxical, yet at the same time genuine and charismatic personality.
The 90-minute biopic is Duran Cohen’s attempt to present a balanced, non-judgmental perspective on Lustiger’s legacy, leaving it to the viewer to judge the ambiguous character. The mystery surrounding Lustiger’s identity was intentional, said Duran Cohen, speaking with the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg on the phone from his home in Paris. The movie won the Grand Prix for Best French TV Drama at the Festival de Luchon in 2013, and will be released in select cinemas in New York, California and Florida on April 11.
Anna Goldenberg: What made you want to do this movie?
Ilan Duran Cohen: I was looking to work together again with my screenwriter, Chantal Derudder, after making a film on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir [“Les amants du Flore” (2006)]. She knew I love films about identity and identity contradiction. She proposed [a movie about Jean-Marie Lustiger], and I didn’t know much about it. I knew he was a convert but I didn’t know his mother died in Auschwitz… It’s a paradox, this story, and so mysterious to me. As a filmmaker, you’re always attracted to something you don’t comprehend at the start [and] you precede the audience in the discovery of the character. [Lustiger] is torn apart by his contradiction and his paradox. It’s even stronger than fiction. That’s why it makes great material for film.