“Is the pope a Catholic?” may be a rhetorical question. When it comes to cardinals, the answer is not so straightforward. Ilan Duran Cohen examines a particularly complicated case in this thoughtful, unpretentious biopic about an extraordinary Catholic prelate.
Jean-Marie (né Aaron) Lustiger (Laurent Lucas, who looks appealingly like Albert Brooks) converted to Catholicism in Nazi-occupied Orléans in 1940 when he was 14. Both his parents objected. Lustiger’s mother was later murdered in Auschwitz, but his father survived the Holocaust and petitioned the rabbi of Paris to have his son’s conversion annulled. Despite this disapproval, Lustiger persisted in his faith, entered the priesthood, and rose in the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy.
Cohen’s film offers little insight into Lustiger’s inner turmoil, and the scenes in which his Jewish and Christian identities clash lack depth. However, such a superficial approach seems to suit the subject, because Lustiger was more a man of action than reflection. As the film opens, he has already made a name for himself as a clerical up-and-comer when the new pope, John Paul II (Aurélien Recoing), makes him bishop of Orléans. Bonded by their Polish roots and conservative opinions (the film does not dwell on sticky issues of birth control, women’s rights, or other controversies), the pope promotes Lustiger to archbishop of Paris, elevates him to the rank of cardinal, and makes him one of his closest advisers. At times the film seems like a buddy movie — in one scene the two spontaneously shed their robes and, wearing only skivvies, take a dip in the papal pool.
THE JEWISH CARDINAL
Lustiger’s dual identity (the French title, “Le métis de Dieu,” translates as “The cross-breed of God”) is strained when in 1987 Carmelite nuns establish a convent on the grounds of Auschwitz. Lustiger is appalled, Jewish organizations pressure him to get the pope to intervene, but the pope sees the convent as a way of challenging Poland’s then-communist regime. That crisis has faded in the aftermath of the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire, but here it dramatizes the struggle of a man of integrity with conflicted loyalties, seeking to do good in a powerful, compromised institution.