This film tells the dramatized tale of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. Lustiger was born to a Jewish family but was kept safe by a gentile family during the second world war. At the age of 14 he felt the calling to convert and was baptized into the Catholic Church.
That’s the backbone of the tale; it’s the hook. It’s what gets you intrigued, however, the film structures itself differently in part because its allowed to. The dual-nature of Lustiger’s identity only really surfaced when he was promoted to the position of Bishop of Orléans. Were this to be an exploitative tale a bulk of the film would be public bickering and fighting back against both sides trying to claim him as their own; what for some films is a whole here is merely a launch-point. Where the film excels is the introspective nature the film has.
Another hurdle this film has to overcome is that it tells a sprawling tale from 1979 to 2007. Covering that much time in roundabout 100 minutes can be problematic, however, there is a wonderful symmetry among the struggles Lustiger has within his own family, with the Church, with himself and in trying to be a liaison between said Church and the Jewish people. That conflict is crystallized as a bulk of the tale ultimately concerns an ill-fated and -conceived establishment of a convent at Auschwitz.
Such a duality wherein a character is balancing his faith an ethnicity is not an easy one to convey. Audiences who appreciate gray areas will certainly gravitate to this film. It reminds me of a bit of The Other Son where the inextricable link of the Jewish faith and ethnicity is made rather profoundly in a different way. Whereas here a man seeks to keep his cultural identity and his “newfound” faith.
A film that paints in such shades of gray would be nowhere without an excelling cast, faltering on their part would render the tale farcical or disrespectful regardless of the best efforts of the writer(s) and director. Thankfully this film has no issues as such. Both clerics that are the central focus of the film are painted as rather human. Firstly, there’s Laurent Lucas as Lustiger, whose introspective yet fiery nature. Then there is Aurélien Recoing as, for the lack of a better term, the antagonist (in some regards), as Pope John Paul II is not painted as infallible, but rather a man whose judgment of a particular situation is clouded by his own world-view. The coming to an understanding that both characters have as they reach a consensus on the crisis is rather moving and sets the stage well for the closing acts.
Those acts are set in motion by the well-timed nature of the flashbacks. For a time it seems like the film is burying the lead not showing or discussing the conversion process and similarly avoiding discussion of the war. Those play in later. It’s a clear illustration of breaking chronology is a better treatment.
To preserve the surprise of it, I will avoid describing the detail the peace that Jean-Marie comes to and the conclusion he reaches regarding his identity at is really only discussed at the most pivotal points of the film. However, it is an intriguing way to look at it.
Clearly, as described above, this is a film that’s not afraid to discuss matter of faith, but also take those discussions into some difficult, challenging places. It’s a story wherein it could be tempting dumb it down and mollycoddle but it does not, quite the opposite it respectfully challenges those watching it to think – proving that faith-based films needn’t be neither propaganda or mindless.