Ida (2013) -- PICK
The Jewish Cardinal (2013) -- PICK
“One is Christian or Jewish, not both.”
This line — uttered by the chief rabbi of Paris to the Catholic archbishop of that city in Israeli-born filmmaker Ilan Duran Cohen’s biographical film The Jewish Cardinal — expresses a widely held sense of mutual exclusion, if not antagonism, between Judaism and Christianity.
But The Jewish Cardinal is one of two 2013 European films now on home video about ethnically Polish-Jewish, devoutly Catholic protagonists who lost parents to the Nazi horror in Poland. Both films also have French connections; Ida is by a Paris-based filmmaker born in Poland, while The Jewish Cardinal is about a Paris-born son of Polish parents.
The great difference between the two protagonists is that the real-life Jean-Marie Lustiger deliberately and consciously chose his Catholic identity, along with his Christian name (he was born Aaron), as well as explicitly affirmed his Jewish heritage, while the fictional protagonist of Ida had both her Catholicism and her Christian name (Anna) thrust upon her in infancy and grew up in complete ignorance of her Jewish heritage.
Anna is a young novice at a Franciscan convent, an orphan raised from infancy by the nuns who eventually learns the shattering truth from her one living relative: Her parents were Jewish, and they were killed during the Nazi horror, while she was sent to the convent and lived.
Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski uses this device to introduce a theme of a society in denial, from property everyone knows but no one admits was stolen from Jews during the war to bodies buried in secret without monuments or markers.
In The Jewish Cardinal, by contrast, Lustiger’s conscious balancing act between his two identities embodies a theme of division and peacemaking — the great mission of Lustiger’s life, one that perhaps no one in either the Jewish or Catholic camps entirely understood, with the possible exception of Pope St. John Paul II (Aurelien Recoing), who appoints Lustiger the bishop of Paris and elevates him to cardinal.
Both movies involve a reckoning of sorts with the Nazi horror. Anna goes in search of her parents’ remains, determined to see them appropriately buried in Jewish sacred ground. Lustiger winds up clashing with John Paul II over the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz.
I appreciated both films, though Ida’s art-house reserve is so pronounced some viewers may be left wondering what the point is. The Jewish Cardinal, by contrast, offers any viewer plenty to think about.
Caveat Spectator: Ida: Disturbing themes, including references to the Holocaust and explicit commentary on a past murder; a non-marital love scene; shadowy, non-explicit nudity; much heavy drinking and some drunkenness; a suicide. Could be okay for mature teens. The Jewish Cardinal: Complex themes; oblique references to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; lots of smoking. Teens and up, though you could watch it with kids in the room.