My grandmother’s family was Jewish. They converted to Catholicism when they came to America. So in that regard, I identify with the main character of this movie, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was a man from a Jewish family who embraced Catholicism, despite fundamental differences between the Judaic and Christian cultures.
THE JEWISH CARDINAL, also known as LE METIS DE DIEU, is a French telefilm. The production values are outstanding and most of it seems to have been shot on location. Settings include the Archdiocese in Paris where Lustiger worked, as well as the Vatican where he was occasionally summoned to meet the pope; and of course, Auschwitz which figures prominently in the last third of the story. The title in French means ‘half-breed’ or ‘cross-breed’ of God. Lustiger called himself a metis when describing his dual faith.
Lustiger’s position as a high-ranking cardinal met with controversy. In this dramatization the conflicts he experiences are realistically portrayed by Laurent Lucas. Lustiger often ran the risk of alienating traditional Jews who might have felt he betrayed the faith by accepting Christ as the messiah; and Christians who might not have been much different from Nazis in their anti-semitism. It was a fine balancing act; he was in the middle of issues that involved both groups– especially the acknowledgment of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.
This film was made by a Jewish director, which is to its advantage. It delicately explores the anti-semitism of Catholics as well as the wiseness of Catholics who recognize the connection their church has to Jewish faith and culture. But more critically, the story examines problems that occurred in the mid-1980s when Carmelite nuns refused to move a convent they had established at Auschwitz. Lustiger and his contemporaries had meetings to address the situation, but the nuns (the film’s villains) had no intention of leaving. This became a political nightmare as well as a religious and cultural dilemma. In some ways, the pope supported the nuns so their convent and the church’s presence in Poland could stand in defiance to Communist control over the country.
Eventually, Lustiger was able to reach the pope on not only a spiritual level, but an emotional and patriotic one. For as we know, Pope John Paul II was really Karol Wojtyla, a Polish-born man. Auschwitz signified the suffering of Jews (which could be interpreted as a symbol of the suffering of Jesus) but it also signified the suffering of the Polish people under the Nazis. The film ends with Lustiger’s death, but not before telling us the pope did convince the nuns to relocate their convent to a nearby location. The film’s conclusion also underscores the fact that Auschwitz did not become a center for Christian matyrdom, but rather a museum about Jewish history.
When I finished watching the film, I felt the Catholic church might be compared to Communism. Members of the Church (the Carmelite nuns in this case) try to tell the world how to believe (by erecting a cross at Auschwitz) in the same way communists and atheists try to tell the world how not to believe. Also, in several instances, it seemed as if these holy men were grappling with earthbound concerns as opposed to higher spiritual ones.
THE JEWISH CARDINAL was directed by Ilan Duran Cohen and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.