search
Featured Post

Gad Elmaleh made a film about becoming Catholic; this priest went to see it

If, as the comedian says, choosing Christianity brought him closer to Judaism, turning his life into fiction on the big screen just may help him understand reality

What am I supposed to say about this film?

Here we have Gad Elmaleh, a comedian from a Moroccan Jewish family who, via Canada, moved to France at age 21 and became a famous comedian.

They say he’s the Jerry Seinfeld of France. They say he’s the first to introduce American-style standup to the French idiom and audience. As far as I can tell, all that is true.

And now he’s made this movie, and… is there anything — anything intelligent — for a person in my position to say?

In 2013, Gad Elmaleh appeared on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee — an episode called “No Lipsticks for Nuns.”

Foreshadowing?

A lot of Americans saw his face for the first time then. He was charming.

In 2015, Elmaleh began an American tour entitled “Oh My Gad.” He moved to New York City. In 2016, an episode of the radio show This American Life about “challenging transitions” included a segment with him.

“Transitions.” Little did they know.

He’s had Netflix specials in French, and also in English, although they say that when he appears in English everything is scripted in advance and checked by an English teacher. Whatever: it’s very impressive.

I remember Gad Elmaleh from his NPR appearance. That’s it. He seemed charming on the radio.

And, when I took the trolley across Geneva to see him onscreen at the Pathé multiplex this week, he was charming again.

But the film? To appropriate an expression: Oy vey.

Reste un peu” is the title of Elmaleh’s film, released on November 16. In English, that would be: “Stay Awhile.”

When I heard about it — and as a Catholic priest here in French-speaking Geneva, how could I not? — my thought was, “Stay Away.”

The film covers leaving more than staying. It’s about Elmaleh’s romance with Christianity, and specifically with Catholicism.

I thought that I should stay away from the movie. After all, I hang out with Jews every chance I get. The suggestion that I endorse the proposition of Jewish people getting baptized would spoil my chances of another invitation.

I thought, too — to be dangerously frank — that perhaps Gad Elmaleh should stay away from my church. Last week, Gavin Ashenden — the former Anglican chaplain to the queen, who is now out of a job because he too has converted to Catholicism — called it a “moribund, fractured and confused church, hosting what appears to be the beginnings of civil war.” He’s not half wrong. I am proud to be Catholic, but I am not unaware of major challenges and contradictions in our church right now.

* * *

Reste un peu” is a small family drama. The problem is, this isn’t merely a film. It’s a filmic recapitulation of the life of Gad Elmaleh, who, of course, plays himself. And I don’t want to judge.

More than that: the man’s parents are in the film, playing the parents. They’re great in their roles, as if they’d had lots of rehearsal.

His sister and cousin are there, too.

It’s hard to talk about this film as a film when it is so close to life.

Let me try for a moment to do so, nevertheless.

It’s a charming film. It really is.

It is well-paced, gentle with its subjects, and full of heart. The family warmth floods off the screen.

In real life, Gad Elmaleh might be more ambiguous about family, as the list of his girlfriends and the children he has sired would suggest. But for the purposes of this film, it’s as if the man is 20 rather than 50, and “family” means “my siblings; my parents.”

What parents!

Mr. and Mrs. Elmaleh, who must be around 80, are perhaps the most charming parts of this entire enterprise. In an early scene, they sit together in bed and talk about their son, who is staying overnight in their apartment — against his wishes, at their insistence. They look like Tevye and Golde at the start of the famous dream sequence.

Gad Elmaleh wasn’t very attached to Judaism as a child or young man, so it would seem. But his dad made churches seem like forbidden fruit. Elmaleh recalled being afraid to enter a church as a child in Casablanca. “It was completely off limits. My dad told me, ‘Can you see this building? You do not enter there.’” Gad the boy entered. He was dazzled by a large statue of the Virgin Mary — the sister-character reveals this in the film — and it seems that attachment has stayed with him.

Jewish parents, take note. Maybe don’t make of the church a shiny poisoned apple.

Now, if he wants to win the heart of a Catholic, Elmaleh knows which button to push. In one of the many interviews he has done this month, he called the Virgin Mary “the star of my movie.”

The Virgin shows up in dreamy footage from the shrine at Lourdes, where her statue is being carried on a litter high above a candlelit procession. She appears as a statue in a neighborhood church, and in one scene gets bawled out to her plaster face by Gad’s mom, who insists, “He’s my son.”

She appears, notably, as a figurine wrapped up in a bath towel in Gad-the-character’s luggage, where she is dug out and uncovered by Mom-the-character and shown to the dad playing Dad. Much to their horror, of course.

Catholics love the Virgin Mary, the mother of you-know-who. She isn’t God; she’s beloved by God. She’s the mother, the guardian, the consoler. You go to her when you’ve scraped your knee, spiritually speaking.

Including her in the movie shows class.

* * *

Class: this is perhaps the only contemporary film I have seen where Catholics and the way they worship aren’t presented as ridiculous or revolting. That’s a nice change.

Elmaleh also tries to give Jews their due. There are at least two rabbis in the film, one male and one female, and both are intelligent, gentle, and kind.

The angry reproaches that Gad absorbs for abandoning his tribe all come from the members of his family — including the cousin, who evokes the Expulsion from Spain. The real zinger comes from Mom: “Are you changing your God? Change your parents!”

That cuts to the heart of what many Jews who embrace Christianity say they experience. They don’t usually see their religious evolution as “changing God.” They think they’re relating to the same God in a new way. And they’re sorry their families don’t understand.

That, I think, is Gad Elmaleh’s thesis, for all the mystery and the double-meaning-ness in this film.

I’m going to brush over the fact that, in the film, Gad-as-Gad backs out of his own baptism at the last second, whispering into the ear of the priest-as-priest that he wants to take a raincheck, even as the choir sings.

We do not know whether real-world Gad was actually sprinkled at a real-world font. It seems not, or not yet.

Can one be Catholic without being baptized? Strictly speaking: no.

The film insists that faith is an intimate matter, which comes up against the community aspect of religion.

Elmaleh tells us what he really thinks (I think) by closing his film with a quotation on a black background. It comes from Jean-Marie Lustiger, born Aron Lustiger, the Jewish cardinal of Paris who died in 2007.

It’s a line taken from La Tribune juive, a French weekly. It comes from an interview Lustiger gave to Rabbi Jacquot Grunewald in 1981:

It is by embracing Christianity that I came closer to the values of Judaism, far from denying them.

Astute internet investigators can find the rest. Lustiger continues in the same interview: “It was in Christianity that I discovered this biblical and Jewish content which had not been given to me as a Jewish child. (…) I saw Abraham and David in the stained glass windows of Chartres.”

They are there indeed.

As are Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and even Adam and Eve.

The conclusion one should draw from this is not universally evident.

* * *

All of this is far from my own experience, not being Jewish. I was baptized as a baby and raised in a big, fervently Catholic family. Nobody’s perfect. All I can do with these quotations — as with Gad Elmaleh’s film — is look, listen, learn.

But then: someone asked Gad Elmaleh this month, “You’re tackling a sensitive subject. Are you afraid of taking hits when the film is released?”

And he replied, “I will take some hits, and perhaps receive some caresses. Addressing religion publicly in France is often sensitive. But I am ready, because I am in a conversation that goes beyond our differences…. To encounter the other is to make oneself available to him. To know how to listen and to take the risk of being surprised.”

Now that I can understand.

A previous version of this article included mistakes about the Beatitudes, a Catholic institute of consecrated life which is represented by a character in Gad Elmaleh’s film. I incorrectly called the Beatitudes a movement. Also, I referred to events in the past of the Beatitudes in a way that was inconsiderate of their members. I would like to correct this mistake with the following statement about the Beatitudes:

On June 29, 2011, Archbishop Robert Le Gall of Toulouse erected a new public Association of the faithful of diocesan right, with a view to becoming an Ecclesial Family of Consecrated Life, under the authority of the Roman Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life (CIVCSVA). And on December 8, 2020, he erected the Community of the Beatitudes as an Ecclesial Family of Consecrated Life of diocesan right at the request of Cardinal Braz De Aviz, prefect of the CIVCSVA. As of December 8th, 2020 the vows of the Beatitudes have become public and all the members have renewed their vows in a public way in the presence of their local bishops. In Israel, they did so in December 2020 in the presence of their bishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, now the Patriarch of Jerusalem. My remarks in the article were ambiguous, possibly leading some readers to believing that their vows are not valid. I apologize for that ambiguity.

I would also like to apologize to the Brothers of Saint John, who are also represented in the film. I am now convinced that it was wrong to talk about the history of those Brothers in the context of a movie review. Both the Beatitudes and the Brothers of Saint John have worked meticulously over years to rectify the problems in the past and to listen to and help victims of abuse. I also note that my own Dominican order is not without its own publicly-known scandals.

I shall be much more prudent in the future, remembering that the lives of individuals are behind the names of groups and organizations.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
Related Topics
Related Posts