The 2023 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival gives special attention to French cinema and includes a selection of 3 films. The French Films shown at the Festival are often very good, like “Stay With Us” from Gad Elmaleh.
In the film, Elmaleh plays himself. After having moved to New York three years ago to kickstart an American career, he is back in Paris to visit his Moroccan-Jewish family. He has booked a room in a fancy hotel, but his family insists that he stays with them. The joy of the reunion is over-shadowed when his mother discovers a statue of the Virgin Mary in her son’s suitcase. And for a good reason: Elmaleh was planning on breaking the news to his family that he wants to convert to Christianity. This is when the usual expression, “Stay with us instead of going to the hotel, we barely see you,” turns into, “Stay with us, you are Jewish!”
The idea of addressing the theme of religion so frontally is audacious, and even more so is the subject of conversion. The Catholic Church in France tends to lose a significant number of faithful, but that does not prevent it from also attracting new converts. According to the Conference of Bishops of France, just over 4,000 adults were baptized in 2022. Six percent were Muslim. Very few were Jews. And yet, Elmaleh wants to convert to Christianity, at least in his movie. “Blessed is he who does not ask his way from someone who knows it, lest he risk getting lost.” This quote is highlighted at the beginning of the movie, and announces a manifest desire for dialogues, discoveries, and personal reflections.
To understand and appreciate the film, one must understand that Elmaleh is a Moroccan Jew, which needs a little bit of explanation for Americans, even for those of the Jewish faith. Ashkenazim are the most populous Jewish group in North America. Their families came from East Europe. They keep the culture of matzah balls, black-hatted Hasidim, and Yiddish. But in France, 75% of Jews are Sephardic. Many of them (or their parents) emigrated from former French colonies (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), after those countries gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s. They hold onto the culture of the Sun, the East and the Exile. Much more exuberant than the Ashkenazi, superstition, folklore and joy are all values that persist in their faith.
In the movie, the confrontation of Elmaleh’s parents with Christianity is at times hilarious. When the mother recoils in horror upon the discovery of the statue of the Virgin Mary, she asks her husband to go get kitchen gloves to lift the statue: “It’s a sin to touch it with your hands.” Elmaleh laughs at himself and his loved ones, without ever giving in to vulgarity.
When casting the movie, Elmaleh originally thought of having Catherine Deneuve play the role of his mother, but quickly realized that only his own parents, David and Regine Elmaleh, could play these roles. And they became the true stars of the film. When asked by a journalist who compared the process of confessing his conversion to a kind of coming out, Elmaleh humorously replied, “A coming out would go much better, because the Jewish mother would respond: ‘As long as you don’t become Catholic!’”
Moreover, if the film is a journey, we will never know the end. Did Elmaleh convert to Christianity? He admits right away that, “in the film there are some autobiographical parts” and “others invented.” But, “the spiritual quest, the search, the introspection are true.” He admits his total sincerity, even when it is embarrassing. Alone in his teenage room, Gad watches a Mass on his computer. His mother bursts in. He slams his computer shut, caught red-handed. There’s no way he can tell her that he is watching a Mass online. The torment of faith is an even more implacable taboo than porn!
Elmaleh’s comedy “Stay With Us” is packed with humor. This personal story could be relevant for any of us who are exploring our own spiritual and ideological choices. The subject is universal, as it has already gained interest from a North American movie distributor. Film Movement just bought the rights for an American version. Hallelujah!
“Stay With Us” plays at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Feb. 18 and 19. You can buy tickets here.