The Bishop of Orleans, a converted Jew, is driving back to Paris when his car breaks down and he’s rescued by a car full of denim-clad French proto-punks. Why don’t they go to mass? he asks. This is no joke, but the bitterly funny setup to the French film The Jewish Cardinal, based on the life of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who spends the movie in a fit of translation, trying to explain the Catholic Church to the youth, Judaism to the Catholics, and himself to his family. Characters in this deft biopic, directed by Ilan Duran Cohen, speak French, Polish, English, German, Latin, and Hebrew, and, as has been the case since that first multilingual Bible story, misunderstandings abound.
Cardinal Lustiger, played with great urgency and tenderness by Laurent Lucas, inhabits the raiment of his station with a comfort and dignity that belies its grandiosity and oddity in a secular world populated by women in peasant shirts and men in tight jeans. Lustiger is less comfortable with the tension between his Jewish origins and his Catholic authority. When the French Catholic press outs him on the occasion of his rise to bishop, the cardinal goes on record saying, “I am still a Jew!” and storms out of the newspaper’s office, declaring in a fury, “I am a living provocation that compels reflection on Christ!” Maybe a messianic complex comes easier to a man who, like Jesus, was born Jewish.
Lustiger, whose mother was killed in Auschwitz, buries his father just after meeting Pope John Paul II, trading one paternal Eastern European for another. John Paul and Jean-Marie bond over a shared childhood love of pierogis, but are torn over Poland’s attitude toward Auschwitz, and the way it remembers the Holocaust. With playful cinematography that emphasizes light and dark, color and gleam, and occasionally lingers on the panel of a comic book, smoke from a cigarette, or graffiti on a Roman side street, The Jewish Cardinal uses the luscious pleasures of the everyday to underscore and endure the big questions of identity, humanity, and home.