Life & Culture

The halachic Catholic: meet a Jew whose made a funny film about his baptism

Moroccan-Canadian-French stand-up Gad Elmaleh travels home to his parents with a big secret in his new movie


In a long-gone episode of Coronation Street, Vera Duckworth goes to church. Gravel-voiced, bubble-permed Vera is not a natural worshipper, but her concern for her friend, the pious Ivy, emboldens her to seek audience with the Almighty. “God,” she says, “You don’t know me. But I think you know Ivy?’”

Across the globe, the collision of the worldly and the holy provides a rich vein of comedy, one mined to success by Moroccan-Canadian-French stand-up Gad Elmaleh, whose film Stay With Us converts his own spiritual struggles into a smart, cute tale of homecoming and fresh hope.

The opening nods towards that familiar trope: the son arriving home with a heavy secret. What transcends stereotype is a trinity of things: the story is true (-ish), the troubled boychik is in his fifties, and the secret is a statuette of the Virgin Mary. He has it in his luggage, because: a) films need visuals and b) this Sephardi stand-up has a sincere desire to be baptised a Catholic.

This family-flipping dilemma is worked to full comic potential. When Gad (played by Gad) returns home to Paris, Père et Mère Elmaleh (see above) discover the statuette in their son’s luggage, and almost drop it in horror. Because you’re used to this type of scene, you’re laughing ironically, too: it could have been a gun in the bag, heroin, pornography… But is this worse?

It would be wrong to suggest, though, that Elmaleh (with co-writer Benjamin Charbit) has turned a serious choice into a simple caper. There are some hard conversations, like the tense Shabbat dinner where Gad’s shocked mother says, “If you change your God, then change your parents and get adopted.”

When we spoke, Gad told me she’d improvised this line, thinking of ways in which she might react, if his baptism plans were true.

Which, however, they were. He also told me he’d presented the issue of baptism and a film about baptism cautiously.

“My parents didn’t really know what they were going to play. I didn’t trick them, but I just said, ‘Ah, it’s a little thing about identity, religion.

“To avoid them saying ‘No. We won’t do this movie’, I wasn’t that precise.

“Throughout our conversation, I was juggling two questions at a time. Because conversion and seeking baptism are one thing.

“But making a film about them, a comedy, no less, with you playing you and the people most affected by your decision pretending to be themselves, well, that is very different.

“Of course there’s lots of personal stuff,” adds Gad. “But I am the director of a movie [looking for] character and subject and theme. And I found it in this story, and everything that I’d been experiencing.”

So could we say that the sincerity of one enterprise lends sincerity to the other?
Undoubtedly authentic is, I think, the explanation Gad gives me and the audience for the whole journey.

It is a journey that begins in the melting pot of his Moroccan childhood, where kids of all faiths ran in and out of each others’ houses. And yet for Gad, one place was off-limits.

“Imagine it, I am five years old and my dad is telling me, ‘Don’t ever, ever enter this building.’

“So the first thing I want to do is… I opened the door of the church. And inside, I found something very inspiring. Very calming.”

Simply sinning is fun, but later, other benefits emerged.

“I discovered that they pray in French and I could understand every word. Some rabbis say you don’t have to understand to feel and believe.

“But in my relationship with God, I want to make sure I understand.”

And there can also come a point when your own rituals seem like daily chores, while someone else’s have a dash of magic.

Gad’s quest for baptism forms an ideal quest for the film, although he concedes it wasn’t in the first draft, and that the reality of the ceremony disappointed him. A Jewish boy getting baptised? Of course it can’t be that simple.

I won’t spoil the ending, which, like the whole film, is sweet, funny and moving.

But I will say it focuses on whether Gad’s family will bless his baptism, and whether Gad will return the gesture. If that’s a device to make a movie, the outcome still tells you much about faith, and where it truly begins. With family.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive