Director Ilan Duran Cohen tells Francine Wolfisz why he decided to make a film about Jean-Marie Lustiger.

AT A time when there were great divides between the Catholic church and the Jewish community, Jean-Marie Lustiger believed he could build bridges – and with good reason.

The Jewish Cardinal MAIN

Laurent Lucas as Jean-Marie Lustiger, aka The Jewish Cardinal

For during his lifetime he became head of the French church and an adviser to Pope John Paul II – even though he was born a Jew. Even more remarkably, despite his complete devotion to the Catholic faith, which began when he converted at 13 – an age he traditionally would have marked his barmitzvah – Lustiger maintained he was Jewish throughout his life.

Changing his name from Aaron to Jean-Marie, in later years Lustiger decided to pursue a career in the church and quickly rose through the ranks. He was appointed Bishop of Orleans in 1979, Archbishop of Paris just two years later and in 1983 was named Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

On becoming Archbishop of Paris, he reportedly said: “I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.” Even after his death, he made headlines when a male relative recited Kaddish in front of Notre Dame Cathedral at his funeral.

His remarkable life, religious conflict and ultimate reconciliation are now the subject of a stunning historical drama, The Jewish Cardinal, which has been chosen for the opening night gala at this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival.

Directed by Ilan Duran Cohen, the film also centres on Lustiger’s role in negotiating the removal of the Carmelite nuns, who built a convent at Auschwitz, following protests from the Jewish community in 1987, as well as his efforts to improve relations between Israel and the Vatican.

“He really opened up the relationship between the Church and the Jews – and only he could have done that because of who he was and where he came from,” says the Israeli-born director, who admits he only began to understand Lustiger’s complex character after starting work on the project alongside screenwriter Chantal Derudder.

“I had wanted to do a Jewish-themed film, but when Chantal suggested Lustiger, I said: “What’s the point?” He was not a character I liked or was attracted to, and while the Jewish community knew about him, the majority had not been that comfortable with him.

Jewish Cardinal_lo“But then Chantal mentioned his mother had died in Auschwitz and it struck a chord with me. When we started to dig a little more, we discovered just how influential he had been in moving the Carmelites from Auschwitz, his work to improve relations with Israel and the fact that he insisted he was a Jew and a Catholic. At the beginning of the project, this was not something that was so comprehensible.”

Duran Cohen, who was raised and lives in France, chose French actor Laurent Lucas in the lead role, and Aurélien Recoing as Pope Jean Paul II, instructing both not to resemble their real-life characters too closely.

“I wanted interpretation without imitation,” he explains. The entire film was shot in a month, on location in Paris and Rome, while the scenes featuring Auschwitz were filmed in a special-effects studio in the French capital. In addition to the restrictions on producing films at the notorious concentration camp, Duran Cohen admits: “Emotionally, I didn’t see myself going to this place, which is a memorial and sacred. Also importantly, the Auschwitz of today is not the Auschwitz of the 1980s and has been renovated to an extent. But it was still very emotional to shoot these scenes, even though we were in a studio.”

Throughout the project, the French director felt the film was “extremely hard to balance” between being “too Jewish or too Catholic”. “I knew I was a potential target for both groups,” he adds.

But his fears were unfounded – the film has, in fact, been well received with audiences and critics around the world. “Something, somewhere really touches Jewish audiences when they see this film. My other working title for it was The Reconciliation, pointing to the reconciliation he longed for with himself, his father, the Jews and the Catholics. “Perhaps we will never understand Lustiger completely, but I feel the film, in a way, brings a sense of reconciliation for us about his character as well – and that’s very touching.”

The Jewish Cardinal will be shown at the opening night gala for the UK Jewish Film Festival on Wednesday at 8.30pm at BFI Southbank.