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The Jewish Cardinal

The Pope John Paul II you’ll find in Ilan Duran Cohen’s The Jewish Cardinal isn’t the one widely familiar to both the public and the Catholic faithful. This one (Aurélien Recoing) is blunt-spoken, expansive, gregarious, and not ascetically averse to enjoying his perks and privileges. He relaxes over vodka and pierogis as he meets and entertains his new archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger (Laurent Lucas). Afterwards, he invites Lustiger to divest himself of his princely habiliments and jump into the new papal swimming pool and race the pontiff.

This pope is also a cannily political one who talks turkey with the new archbishop, congratulating himself on his shrewd choice (although the movie doesn’t really clarify the papal calculation). This invitation to candor will later lead Lustiger sharply to challenge Jean Paul on a crucial matter.

The Jewish Cardinal is a sometimes hurried, and oddly unbalanced biopic about Jean Marie Lustiger. The movie’s focus is to a large extent on Lustiger’s career and very public status. His background, personal development and his most deeply held ideas are relatively slighted, as if this material was inaccessible. But there have been a couple of documentaries and several books about the cardinal, and fairly widespread discussion and debate, during and after his life (he died in 2007), about his conversion, his theology and his personal tendencies.

Lustiger became a Catholic in 1940 at age fourteen as he was being hidden from the German occupation of France, which resulted, with the Vichy regime’s cooperation, in the murder of about 75,000 Jews in the death camps. Duran Cohen does include brief scenes of Lustiger trying to assuage his father, who bitterly resented his son’s conversion. These are the most emotionally persuasive and poignant of the movie’s scenes, but they don’t go far enough in illumining the sometimes sharp tension entailed in the cardinal’s position and how he managed it.

The last half of the picture is largely given over to the bitter international controversy that erupted when some Carmelite nuns established a convent within the walls of Auschwitz in 1986, and Lustiger’s strenuous and lengthy effort to have it removed. He undertook it despite John Paul’s reluctance to intervene, even as Jews and others decried the historical inappropriateness and insult involved. These sequences are convincing and well paced (even if deep-rooted Polish anti-Semitism is ignored).

Lucas’s performance is spirited, if a little too manic. (Lustiger was known as a hard-driving, impatient man.) He does seem a little too young for the role. Recoing’s pope is confident, cunning and stubborn, an interesting and entertaining portrayal.

The Jewish Cardinal never quite succeeds in giving an audience a balanced treatment of its undeniably intriguing subject. It suggests that he was a conflicted man, but doesn’t provide enough insight into an unusual life and man.

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