In a few words, what is the subject of the film in which you play the role of Gad, your double?
After three years in the United States, Gad returns to France and reunites with his Sephardic Jewish parents and friends. Secretly, he also comes to pursue a spiritual path alongside the Virgin Mary..
What his family takes very badly…
My character has the secret plan to be baptized. When they discover it, the members of his family experience this desire for conversion as a betrayal, thinking that he is turning away from himself and his values. The mother then has very harsh words: “Are you changing God? Changing parents! Have yourself adopted!” This film mixing fiction and autobiographical elements, I asked my parents to magnify the line of their characters. They are much more open in real life.
Is it because you feel deeply rooted in Jewish tradition that you are ready to question it?
If I hadn’t been to the yeshiva (Torah study center, editor’s note), if I hadn’t taken Hebrew lessons, studied the Talmud and the psalms that we share with Christians, if I had not been a practicing Jew, I would not have been ready to question my own tradition. Nor would I have been so sensitive to the figure of Marie.
Has she been touching you for a long time?
Marie introduced herself to me when I was a child. When we had been formally forbidden to do so, my sister and I entered the Church of Notre-Dame in Casablanca. I was dazzled by the statue of the Virgin to the point of bursting into tears. I have never forgotten this moment of which I want to testify. Since this first meeting, I have had a real relationship with Marie, who accompanies me and watches over me.
In “real life”, do you talk about conversion with Jewish and Catholic religious?
I know the religious people well who have agreed to play their own role in my film. In each of them, the character of Gad finds a welcome and a reflection to nourish his journey of faith. Enlightened, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur embodies the voice of counsel, conscience and Jewishness. Bright and tolerant, Father Barthélemy and Sister Catherine leave great freedom of choice to the hero throughout his career as a catechumen.
Have you experienced a conversion of heart?
This term – which means that one converts inside without taking the steps – is not representative of what I live. Contrary to my character, I did not follow the path of catechumenate. Not yet ! (Smile.) Delphine Horvilleur says to the character of Gad: “You will always be a man on the way”, which means that the character that I play is never so much himself as moving towards an elsewhere.
Is this your case?
Quite frankly, yes. I really find myself on the way to this elsewhere that I do not control. I move forward with my heart by surrounding myself with people and texts that help me think. For example, I am currently reading a fascinating book by Yaël Hirsch, entitled Stay Jewish? Converts facing the universal. The author shows very well the complexity of the question of the conversion of Jews to Christianity in the 20th century. In conversion, there can be a conflict of loyalties generated by the fear of betraying one’s origins and identity.
“It was by embracing Christianity that I came closer to the values of Judaism, far from denying them.” Why did you bring this quote from Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger to the screen?
The life story of Jean-Marie Lustiger overwhelms me. How did this kid from a Jewish family, separated from his parents during the Second World War, come to ask for baptism at age 14? I first wondered. By studying his journey, I discovered that he had had a real encounter with Christ. But for his burial, he asked for the kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) to be said. His whole existence speaks to us of the endless link between Judaism and Christianity.
What binds you to Sister Catherine, a nun from the community of the Beatitudes who plays in the film?
We say the Beats! (Smiles.) I met Sister Catherine in Lourdes and it was truly spiritual love at first sight. The members of his community take a unique look at Judaism. They know Hebrew and make a long Shabbat entrance prayer each week while singing the Kabbalat Shabbat (Sabbath greeting). During the writing of the film, Sister Catherine was a referent, guiding me on certain Christian notions and impressing me with truth on the set. With my mother, between the scenes, they sang a lot together the Shalom alekhem (Shabbat welcome song).
Has this nun become a friend?
Yes, and it’s so good to have people in life who say to you: “ I pray for you. “Praying for each other, I think it’s great. Christian prayer groups are something magnificent!
By tackling a very delicate subject, are you afraid of taking a beating when the film is released?
I will take blows or… caresses. Addressing the issue of religions publicly in France is often sensitive. But I am ready, because I am in a process of dialogue beyond our differences and the representations that we have of them. Meeting the other means making yourself available to them, knowing how to listen to them and taking the risk of being surprised.
But you expose yourself personally…
I am aware that I am dealing with sensitive notions linked to the sacred. Talking about my fascination for Mary, I who am Jewish, amounts to playing with the limits since Judaism forbids idolatry. But through this film, I want to show that I have the right, taking the measure of my responsibility, to question my own faith and my own identity, to the point of mistreating it. Questioning one’s religion does not mean turning away from it.
Are you going to participate in debates when the film is released?
It’s planned ! Thanks to this feature film, I would like us to talk about religions outside of subjects linked to radicalism or politics. After each screening of the film, spectators come to tell me family stories of conversion. Secularism – to which I am very attached – does not consist in making religions invisible and the voices of believers inaudible.
It means allowing them to coexist and express themselves, without disturbing public order. During the pandemic, I regretted that religious leaders were not listened to more. They could have helped to heal our souls who needed it so much. In France, it’s as if we were afraid that there was an epidemic of religions! We owe it, in part, to history…
In Stay a bitwhat do you say to Catholics?
I tell them that it is up to them, and no one else, to take on the message of the Good News. Christian values are great! Just read the Gospels. I often wonder why Catholics are so discreet – sometimes complexed? – or in self-censorship to talk about their faith. When I went to Paray-le-Monial, I wanted to present all these faithful to the whole world!
What do you think of Pope Francis?
With the whole team of the musical show Bernadette de Lourdes, we had the chance to meet him and sing the song Madame in front of him. What upsets me about Pope Francis, well beyond his function, is what we perceive when in contact with him: a strong soul, say the (veritable, Ed) genuine true, Americans. Even when he looks grumpy or tired, this man seems to keep a child’s soul. I can easily imagine him in dialogue with God and praying to him intensely.
Behind the scenes
The day after his interview with Pilgrim, Gad Elmaleh joins us for a photo session at the Collège des Bernardins. A place that he particularly likes for having taken certain courses there, from the start of the pandemic. Here, Gad is a very invested student and familiar with the place. As soon as he arrives, several students and teachers enter into discussion with a Gad who is so receptive to these exchanges that he almost forgets the shooting!
Born in Casablanca (Morocco).
Moving to Montreal (Canada).
Installation in Paris, training at Cours Florent.
First one-man-show, Décalages, directed by Isabelle Nanty.
Birth of his son Noah.
Performs the role of Dov Mimran in The truth if I lie ! 2
Realisation of coconuthis first feature film.
Birth of his son Raphael.
On tour with his show By the way.