Gad Elmaleh: A funny parishioner

This SMS, Barthélemy Port, which many call “Father Barth”, remembers it like yesterday. It was in March 2021. “Hello, my name is Gad Elmaleh, I am an actor. “He introduced himself as if I didn’t know him, it made me smile,” remembers this brother of Saint-Jean, parish priest of Sainte-Cécile in Boulogne-Billancourt (Hauts-de-Seine).

Gad Elmaleh, the actor, therefore, contacts the religious for a writing session for his next film. “He wanted to meet a priest to talk about conversion, the catechumenate, baptism. » Appointment is made at the comedian’s with two screenwriters and the producer of the film, Isaac Sharry, a Sephardic Jew like Gad Elmaleh. What was supposed to be a one-hour work session ended in four hours of discussion. “Quickly, things took a personal turn, I felt Gad very sincere”, remembers the priest.

For a while now the comedian had been thinking about it: to approach, in a film, the spiritual quest that has always inhabited him. Or rather since the age of 7, when defying their parents’ ban on going to a Christian place of worship, he and his older sister, Judith, walk into a church in Casablanca, Morocco, and come across nose with a statue of the Virgin Mary. The little boy comes out as moved as he is troubled.

“At the time, I didn’t understand that it was such an important moment for him, says Judith Elmaleh. For me, his emotion was the reaction of an impressed child. I didn’t think it would be so deep. » Over the years, the artist and his big sister sometimes talk about this moment stolen from the supervision of their father. Nothing more.

“I thought it was a joke”

The memory of this smiling Virgin nevertheless accompanies the little boy who has become an actor. But it is from 2017 that everything starts. At the time, Roberto Ciurleo, producer of musicals, and Catholic, had just launched his new project: a show on Bernadette de Lourdes. He and his partner are looking for partners to finance the project.

Gilbert Coullier, producer of the musical but also of Gad Elmaleh’s shows, touches on it to the actor… who takes out the checkbook, without asking any questions. He pays a third of the production. “I thought it was a joke, remembers Roberto Ciurleo. Gilbert told me: “He didn’t ask for anything, he trusts you, but he wants to finance.” »

In August 2019, in the midst of a controversy where Gad Elmaleh is accused of plagiarism, Roberto takes him to Lourdes to, finally, see the show Bernadette of Lourdes. The comedian is touched to the heart by the Marian city and the story of Bernadette. The emotion felt in Casablanca 40 years earlier finds meaning. Especially since the actor discovers that this church in Morocco which touched him so much is called… Notre-Dame de Lourdes de Casablanca. From this summer of 2019, Roberto Ciurleo remembers deep exchanges, an unparalleled heart-to-heart. “It is the first time in my life that I have met someone who is not a priest or a nun with whom we talk so much about spirituality. I lived by his side an experience of spiritual fraternity unprecedented in my life. »

Soon, the Marian shrine and its airport held no secrets for Gad Elmaleh. “One day, Gad called me and said, ‘What are you doing on Monday? Do you want to come to Lourdes with me? remembers Barthélemy Port. We made the round trip in 24 hours with one of his friends. I discovered on this occasion a facet of Gad that I did not know. He presented the sanctuary, showed the taps, the water from Lourdes to his friend as if he were at home. »

Between two trips to the Pyrenees, the artist searches and reads: Saint Augustin, Jean-Marie Lustiger, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Simone Weil. “He is someone who reads a lot, observes the parish priest of Sainte-Cécile. His curiosity and his great culture contrast with the image of stand-up, the glamorous and glittery representation that one can have of people on the other side of the television set. »

Fascinated by Charles de Foucauld

In his research, the humorist familiarized himself with the story of Charles de Foucauld, which fascinated him. One fine day, François Asselin, the Saumur employer of the young carpenter considered to be the miracle of Charles de Foucauld, also receives an SMS from Gad Elmaleh, who offers to meet him. “I initially received his request with curiosity, even mistrust. We come from such different worlds that we first had to learn to sniff each other. »

The two men meet in a bistro. The dishes arrive, Asselin grabs his fork. “That’s when Gad says to me: ‘Are you a Christian or are you not a Christian? We must bless!”, remembers this practicing Catholic. And we blessed the meal at the restaurant. When you start like that with me, the heart opens. » A friendship is born. Later, the two men will go together to Rome, for the canonization of Charles de Foucauld. “Gad has the approach of someone who feels loved, and who tries to bring order to this love that comes to upset the established order. He is on a quest, it solidifies little by little. The house is built on rock. »

Soon, the artist entrusted Roberto Ciurleo with an idea for a project: to make a film on this spiritual journey. “I thought he was crazy to bring what he saw to light. I was afraid that it would put his path in danger. » Maybe that’s why Gad adds a bit of fiction to reality first. “At the beginning, he told me about a project of a writer who would be called Joseph, who would return from the United States after writing a book on the Virgin Mary and who would fall in love with its editor”, says Isaac Sharry, longtime friend of the actor and producer of Stay a bit.This Joseph, wouldn’t that be you, by any chance? », the producer teases him, who convinces him to dare the intimate film, with the family.

Discreet vis-à-vis the Jewish community

The bet is daring. Because in the Elmaleh family, we laugh a lot, but we don’t really talk. We talk about what we do, yes, but not about what we live. We are modest. Talking about something as intimate as faith is not an easy task. “I don’t know how I ended up on the set! », remembers Judith Elmaleh who, in the film, plays her own role, that of a big sister who worries a little, wonders a lot about her brother’s crisis of faith. ” What I say in the film is what would have happened if we had approached the question of spirituality in such a frontal way. she specifies.

In this family whose father is a mime and whose grandfather was a clown, art serves as an intermediary to initiate major discussions. “It’s our way of communicating” smiles Judith, who has just published her first novel, A queen (Robert Laffont), in which she herself recounts a heavy family secret, discovered late in life. “It’s thanks to the film that I understood how fundamental this experience in Casablanca had been for him. »

Expansive with Catholics, Gad remains discreet about his spiritual search vis-à-vis those close to him in the Jewish community. William Azoulay, his childhood friend from Casablanca, also Sephardic, never talked too much about spirituality with the actor. “I knew he had a sort of fascination for the Virgin, but I didn’t go any further. The questioning about the existence of God, that accompanies him from the beginning. But these are subjects that we tackled more with this film”, relates the one who, in Stay a bit, plays the role of this best friend worried about his friend. The spiritual film project, however, did not surprise William.

He knows the curious Gad, eager to understand, to know. He remembers this time when his friend fell in love with surfing. He had let his hair grow out and spent his time at the beach. “When Gad is interested in something, he goes all the way. There, he learned a lot, he knows Catholicism better than most Catholics, alongside his sharp Jewish religious culture that he acquired at the yeshiva. » Catholicism, love at first sight or a passing fancy? ” I do not know. And I find that even more interesting! »

A journey that challenges

The parish of Sainte-Cécile, in any case, is more than a passing fancy. “My real surprise was to see him again at mass after filming! exclaims Barthélemy Port. Recently, I was at the door of the church to welcome the parishioners and I see him coming. “You didn’t tell me you were coming!” I told him. He answers me with a smile: “Ah because I have to warn you every time? I needed it.” » When he goes to mass, Gad Elmaleh arrives a little earlier to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. “I wonder what he says to himself at such times, but he comes! »

In the wake of his spiritual quest, the actor sows. “Gad’s path made me grow a lot. He looked at people I would never have met naturally, confesses Isaac Sharry, sitting in his producer’s office. I have enormous respect and deep admiration for Father Barth and Sister Catherine. They are bright, it’s a chance to be friends with them. This project made me much closer to Catholics! »

François Asselin, he has just seen Stay a bit when we reach him by phone. “This film questions us, he confides, we who were baptized by the choice of our parents, and who sometimes stop asking ourselves the question: “What did you do with your baptism?”. » Gad’s devotion challenges Barthélemy Port, whose faith is rather Christocentric. “He has a Marian faith. Whether she is completely Christian, that is not the question. He made me discover something beautiful in Marian piety. »

For now, Isaac Sharry can’t find the time. But as soon as he sees more clearly, he has promised himself: he will invite his Catholic friends to a Shabbat dinner again.

Gad Elmaleh: A funny parishioner