Judge P.S. Colbert hopes it's not a sin to worship great cinema.
"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."—Father Jean-Marie Lustiger
True story: Aaron Lustiger was born in 1926 in Paris, France, to Jewish parents, emigrants from Poland. At the age of fourteen, Aaron (against his parent's wishes) converted to Catholicism, taking the name "Jean-Marie" when baptized by the Bishop of Orléans. In 1942, Aaron's mother was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where she perished.
Flash forward to 1979. Father Jean-Marie Lustiger (Laurent Lucas, Calvaire) is informed that he'll soon be leaving the St. Jeanne parish he's been serving for ten years; he's just been appointed the new Bishop of Orléans, by newly appointed Pope John Paul II (Aurèlien Recoing, Time Out).
This news doesn't warm the heart of Lustiger's Yiddishe Papa (Henri Guybet): "Why would the Pope choose Aaron for a Bishop? To show that a good Jew is a converted Jew?"
Jean-Marie has his doubts as well, but they're soon erased after meeting the first Polish Papist, and the two men form a strong bond, based on shared goals and mutual respect. In April of 1983, while still recovering from an assassination attempt, the Pope brings Jean-Marie—promoted to Archbishop of Paris in 1981—out to see the newly designed "Popemobile," which he regards as a silly necessity ("I may look like a clown, but I'll no longer be a shooting range target.").
Here, the Pontiff takes advantage of the opportunity to be alone with the Archbishop, and tell him of his decision to name him as Cardinal.
John Paul II: "And I take you as my adviser. You will become a papabile. One
day…maybe a Jew will be the clown in the freak show car."
Soon thereafter, an event will shake the tremendous faith these men have in each other. In late 1984, a group of ten Belgian Carmelite nuns established a Roman Catholic convent at Auschwitz. Enraged Jewish groups maintain that the Nazi death camp should be preserved only as a memorial site, out of respect for its victims. As the world's highest ranking Jewish-born Catholic convert, the Cardinal is prevailed upon to intervene and use his influence on the Pope to remove the convent; a challenge Jean-Marie gladly accepts. Unfortunately, he finds that his friend the Pope is not at all eager to intervene (publicly maintaining that "the personal line of the Pope is that local Bishops have responsibility for local affairs of the church"), and when pressed, makes it clear that he favors the convent for reasons both political and personal.
The Jewish Cardinal is clearly not your father's Padre biopic, nor is this French telefilm what we Americans have come to regard as a standard "TV movie." Lavishly budgeted, sumptuously photographed, and brilliantly directed by Ilan Duran Cohen (who co-scripted with Chantal Derudder), the film does a masterful job of humanizing its inhabitants, without disrespecting their religious stations in any way. What's more, features two leading performances that would certainly be deemed Oscar-worthy had this project originally been released to the big screen instead of the small one.
The DVD release by Film Movement is a standard definition transfer of first-class sight and sound, featuring a gorgeously balanced color-palette in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo mix options in the original French, though English subtitles are available, if needed.
Also included are a short pitch to potential future Film Movement club subscribers, short bios on the film's director and two stars, and "Kosher," a bonus short film about a friendless little Jewish boy (Ali Al-Rikabi) who sees his life improve considerably when he's visited by an errant piglet. While beautifully photographed, the short subject goes from charming and whimsical to heavy-handed and confusing within ten minutes. Shame.
If there's one complaint to be made about The Jewish Cardinal, it's that its brief running time renders the film a bit of a "greatest hits" package, leaving out a great deal of rich detail about Cardinal Lustiger's obviously full life. Then again, what kind of complaint is it that one only wishes of a film that there were more of it to enjoy? I heartily encourage all true cineastes to check out this film, religious convictions aside.
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Studio: Film Movement
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