The New York Premiere of The Jewish Cardinal (Le Metis de Dieu) screened three times at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival. As word of mouth spread, the second and third screenings were sold out and the wait list line on the last screening day was very long. Praise for the film and the director’s live Q & A sessions escalated the audience turn out. At the third screening, the film received hearty applause which demonstrated that it was one of the festival’s fan favorites.
Directed by Ilan Duran Cohen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chantal Derudder, the film is a fascinating account of Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger (1981-2005). Lustiger was born Aaron Lustiger to Ashkenazi Jewish parents living in France. Lustiger at 13 converted to Catholicism over his father’s protests and attempts to rescind his baptism. He rose in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to become one of its most outspoken and prominent Cardinals, helping Pope John Paul II tackle vital issues of the day politically and globally. The film focuses on the period from Lustiger’s appointment as the Bishop of Orleans until he receives his appointment as Cardinal, The Archbishop of Paris, a position he held until he retired in 2005.
The filmmaker is careful with the memory of Jean-Marie Lustiger, attempting to round what is know of him, a man whose fascinating and surprising journey in life can only benefit our cultural understanding. A testament of Cohen’s brilliant care is evidenced by the enthusiasm with which the film was received at this festival, a combined effort by the Jewish Museum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. The hope is that Cohen’s message, which is the same as Lustiger’s, will be shouted far and wide.
In his introduction to the screening, Cohen simply stated that the film is “about reconciliation.” Indeed, in Lustiger (wonderfully rendered by Laurent Lucas), there is the reconciliation of the two faiths, Judaism and Christianity, and there is revealed the hoped for reconciliation between himself and his father, who were in conflict. Charles Lustiger was devastated by Lustiger’s choice to convert. Nevertheless, Charles was very proud of his son’s independence, his integrity and his perseverance in attempting to show love and forgiveness without compromising his birthright as a Jew. Lustiger makes it clear to everyone that he has converted to Catholicism, but he will never renounce his Judaism. He is a Jew and he is a Catholic. It is his choice and the film intimates why it makes sense for him. During the film we learn that Lustiger is practicing and strengthening his Hebrew and attempting to understand Christianity’s growth and development out of Judaism with Christ as the lynchpin joining both faiths. The film is brilliant in revealing Lustiger’s struggle for reconciliation despite opposition and denunciations from Jews and Catholics. Cohen shows us Lustiger’s humanity and reveals the instances when either his temper or his cowardice overcame him and he nearly faltered in his drive toward uplifting Judaism and Christianity with love, understanding and integrity.
Rather than reveal Lustiger’s life chronology, Cohen elects to begin when he was vicar of Sainte-Jeanne-de-Chantal (1969-1979) in the wealthy 16th arrondissement of Paris with his parochial vicar Andre Vingt-Rois who later succeeded him as Archbishop of Paris when Lustiger retired. He is beloved of his parishioners who affectionately refer to him as “the bulldozer” because of his temper and at times his determined views. We learn later that these are a few of the reasons Pope John Paul II entrusted him with the position of Bishop Orleans. In addition his views are similar to the Pope’s and run counter to some of the French clergy with whom Cardinal Paolo Bertoli (he recommended Lustiger to the Pope) is on bad terms.
After 15 months and much consideration Jean-Paul II notifies Lustiger he will be the Bishop of Orleans. It is a magnificent gesture because Orleans is where Aaron Jean-Marie was baptized into the Christian faith. This act appears to be ordained by God, however, there is an overriding problem and the filmmaker reveals it immediately. Will Charles Lustiger (Henri Guybet) be present at his son’s appointment as Bishop of Orleans? The conflict is clearly revealed when Lustiger visits his father. There are old wounds between the two and there is a bitterness that the father holds for his son. There are emotional hurts Lustiger feels in his father’s non acceptance; he also feels the guilt of letting his father down. However, Cohen makes clear the obvious great love between them and the sacrifice that each is making to attempt to get along when estrangement would have been much easier for both, though it would have left father and son with regrets and sorrow. Lustiger’s female cousin Fanny (Audrey Dana) is a mitigating force and at times acts as the go-between behind the scenes to soften both men to be more supportive and understanding of each other.
Screenwriters have made excellent choices in keeping Jean-Marie’s past, his decision to convert, his mother’s move back to Paris during WWII to keep the business running, and his time in unoccupied France until 1945 in the shadows.
There are only a few flashbacks which coincide with emotional hurt or an eruption of feelings not yet dealt with in the present or a clarification of the time period. Instead, the dialogue between the father and son elucidates more of what happened in the past: Giselle Lustiger being deported to Auschwitz where she was killed; the father staying in safety with the children in unoccupied France. These moments are used sparely to reveal Jean-Marie’s relationship with his father. And gaps are left about Jean-Marie’s conversion; a spiritual experience is alluded to which is thought provoking. More important is Jean-Marie’s attempt to reconcile himself with his father before he dies and Jean-Marie’s developing relationship with the Pope which is fascinating.
Naturally, during his initial conversation with the Pope (a dynamic and believable Aurélien Recoing) he asks whether he was appointed because he was Jewish; he repeats he has made it known that he will not renounce his Judaism though he has chosen to convert to Catholicism. That Jean-Marie is a strong man of courage is made clear and Cohen’s and Derudder’s characterizations of Lustiger and the Pope set up the problems that are to come later in the film. Both must work together to solve the conflicts or there will be disastrous results between global Catholicism and Judaism. However, during this initial visit, we come to understand the brilliant Pope’s vision for France. With Lustiger who eventually will be moved up to the position of Archbishop of Paris, the Pope hopes to restore Catholic France and bring unity amongst believers. It is an uncanny appointment which has later repercussions and which eventually is crucial to facilitating the eventual fall of communism. The fall of communism is the most vital of goals in the Pope’s intentions for Poland and for religious believers globally.
Without Jean-Marie Lustiger’s presence as a reconciler upholding Judaism and Catholicism in the position of Archbishop of Paris, other events may have occurred which would have exacerbated animosity between Jews and Polish Catholics delaying the fall of communism and creating a cultural/religious backlash when cooperation was most needed. How Cohen reveals this is nothing short of revelatory. For those who follow Judaism or Christianity or both, they will most likely agree with Jean-Marie Lustiger that it was God’s will that he was appointed Bishop of Orleans and then Archbishop of Paris. Cohen’s true-to-life storytelling is uplifting. He reminds us of the possibilities for goodness if there is respect, love and forgiveness between and among cultures and those of faith.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
When one speaks “sotto voce,” one speaks in a softer, lower tone for emphasis or perhaps to give the impression of an involuntary utterance of truth which may shock or antagonize. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics, 2003), is revealing great truths through undercurrents and whisperings of poignant and impossible love in the world premiere of Sotto Voce. The play, which he also directed, is being performed at Theater for the New City until March 9.
As the play opens, we hear a foghorn and see two separate scenes that are going on simultaneously, one from the past and one in the present. The scene from the past involves memory and imagination. The scene in the present is of uncompromising reality. In the present we see Bemadette, a the renowned German-born writer, composing her work center stage at her desk in her apartment in New York City. A voiceover narration of Bemadette’s rich and beautiful prose describing the scene she has written makes the prose alive. We see a sister and her brother, the Strausses, walking happily on their way toward the ship they will soon board on their way out of Germany to Cuba. Along with 937 other Jewish refugees they are seeking asylum from Hitler’s Germany. The year is 1939, The ship is the ill-fated SS St. Louis.
The tragedy of the St. Louis is one of the more egregious examples of politics, human profiteering and discrimination involving democratic countries to come out of the pre-WWII years. After the ship made it to the alleged place of asylum, the refugees never were allowed into Cuba. They sought help from Canada and the U.S. but were denied immigration status and turned away. After voyages to the Florida coast and back to Cuba, they were running out of supplies. The ship was forced to return to Europe. Belgium, France, England and Holland agreed to take in the refugees. Of them, 254 died when the European countries were occupied by the Nazis (England excepted). Of these 254, many were sent to the camps. The St. Louis incident is integral to Sotto Voce. How Cruz uses it to evoke wonderful themes about memory, lost love, regret, reconciliation and rebirth is poetic and illuminating.
As Cruz develops the play, he intertwines memory, imagination and current reality to tell the story of Bemadette. Her lover was Strauss, who with his sister, were refugees on the St. Louis. Bemadette cannot deal with past regrets about her lover who died in the camps. Her stability and her enjoyment of the present have been warped by pain. When we meet Bemadette (an astounding and emotionally taut performance by Franca Sofia Barchiesi), we recognize she is a dried husk. Guilt has sucked out the choicest portions of her lifeblood. In her attempt to reconcile the past, she writes, but it is poor recompense and she is haunted by nightmares and ghosts.
Then a life-changing event occurs. It helps her expiate the sadness and desolation that has kept her pinned to the past in repeated agonizing remembrances. The catalyst comes in a beautiful form, a Cuban college student, Saquiel (an intense and provocative Andhy Mendez) who has read her writings and who shares a bond with her. His grandfather’s sister was on the St. Louis and was killed in the Holocaust. In seeking out Bemadette, he is looking for his past and wanting to understand the sources of the beauty of her writings and her own history that she would prefer to nullify but cannot.
An ethereal and platonic relationship via phone and email develops between Bemadette and Saquiel, fueled by an intermediary, Bemadette’s maid Lucila (an excellent Arielle Jacobs). The student and the writer help one another, even though they do not physically see each other but instead imagine they are together. It is through their loving, healthful relationship and their probing discussions that we discover the mysteries of Bemadette’s horrific regrets and misery about her Jewish lover. It is through Saquiel’s perseverance, love and appreciation of Bemadette’s artistry and history that she is able to reconcile her memories with the present realities. By the play’s conclusion Saquiel and Bemadette are transported to a new understanding of themselves and what they are willing to sacrifice to gain peace and hope.
In Sotto Voce Nilo Cruz has created a sumptuous work of art, integrating poetic forms within the structure of the plot to fuel the dialogue and characterizations. He does this with beauty and grace that convey a wistfulness and longing for health and wholeness which both characters are on their way to achieving by the play’s end. Most importantly, Cruz reminds us of the power of human relationships to heal. It is a power that transcends the limitations of time and space and age differences. If it is allowed to develop and grow, one may receive the energy to create new dreams to replace those lost to time and regret.
Sotto Voce was performed in a limited run at Theater for the New City.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.