Spielberg and Rylance reunite for a film about interfaith tensions at a pivotal moment in Catholic history

Spielberg and Rylance reunite for a film about interfaith tensions at a pivotal moment in Catholic history April 13, 2016


Religion has been a recurring theme in Steven Spielberg’s films.

Some of his films, like Schindler’s List and Munich, have explored key issues in recent Jewish history, and he has long had an interest in the story of Moses, which has manifested itself in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Spielberg directed, and The Prince of Egypt, which DreamWorks produced at his behest. Other films, such as Amistad, have shone a positive light on Christianity, and particularly Catholicism.

And then there are the strong religious overtones in Spielberg’s science fiction films, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which makes an explicit reference to the story of Moses as dramatized in The Ten Commandments) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (with its dying and rising Christ-figure from another world).

But what happens when Judaism and Catholicism clash in one of his films?

We’ll find out next year, when Spielberg makes The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara.

The film is based on a non-fiction book by David Kertzer that describes how, in 1858, a Jewish boy in Italy was taken from his family and raised as a Christian because he had been secretly baptized. The controversy that ensued may have played a part in the unification of Italy and the elimination of the Papal States in the 1870s.

The film’s screenplay is written by Tony Kushner, the politically-minded playwright (Angels in America) who wrote Munich and Lincoln for Spielberg.

And Pope Pius IX, who was personally involved in the Mortara case, will be played by Mark Rylance, who just won an Oscar for his role in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and will soon play the title character in Spielberg’s The BFG (i.e. Big Friendly Giant).1

Pius IX, incidentally, is the pope who convened the First Vatican Council, which made the infallibility of the pope an article of Catholic dogma. The Council was cut short when the Kingdom of Italy invaded Rome and ended the Papal States in 1870.

As for Edgardo Mortara himself, he was ordained a priest in France in 1873 and died in Belgium in 1940 — two months before the Nazis invaded that country.

There’s a lot of fascinating material here, but how will Spielberg handle it?

Maybe Amistad can give us a clue.

As I explained in an article on that film way back when, Spielberg is comfortable with religion as an expression of one’s rootedness in tradition, but he is less comfortable with evangelism, i.e. with characters who try to convert other people to their own faith. And yet, he seems to accept the possibility that people can change from one faith to another on their own initiative. (The fact that the abolitionists try to convert the slaves: not so good. The fact that one of the slaves pages through an illustrated Bible on his own and decides to believe in the God he sees there: that’s okay.)

So I don’t expect Spielberg to look too kindly on the Catholics who steal Mortara away from his parents. But how will he handle Mortara’s apparently genuine embrace of the Catholicism with which he was ultimately raised? The film could sympathize with Mortara’s freedom to choose. Or it could depict him as a brainwashed pawn.

Either way, the film should be interesting. We’ll find out next year.

— The picture above shows Spielberg and Rylance on the set of Bridge of Spies.

1. In addition to Bridge of Spies, The BFG and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Rylance was also recently cast in Spielberg’s Ready Player One. The only other actors to appear in four Spielberg films are Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Bridge of Spies) and Harrison Ford (all four Indiana Jones films, plus he appears in one of E.T.’s deleted scenes).

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