In "Stay With Us," French Jewish comedian Gad Elmaleh takes on his real-life interest in Catholicism — and what his parents make of it.
In "Stay With Us," French Jewish comedian Gad Elmaleh takes on his real-life interest in Catholicism — and what his parents make of it.

In a conversion comedy, France’s Jerry Seinfeld flirts with Catholicism

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Gad Elmaleh has long been called the French Jerry Seinfeld, but he is different in one key respect.

Like Seinfeld, Elmaleh is a massively successful stand-up and the voice of the jazz-loving bee Barry Benson in “Bee Movie” (in the French dub). Elmaleh sells out stadiums and has a Netflix show loosely based on his life. Unlike Seinfeld, Elmaleh has a yeshiva education and often leaned on his Sephardic Jewish roots in his public persona. All this to say that, in late 2022, when news broke that Elmaleh converted to Catholicism, it was a seismic development. Fans’ fears of apostasy, it turns out, were both well-founded and a touch premature.

In Elmaleh’s film “Stay With Us,” he plays a version of himself — with the same name and same family (he cast his actual mom, dad and sister) — who is preparing for baptism. In a Jerusalem Post interview, Elmaleh blamed the film for false reports of his conversion, but didn’t deny that there was a kernel of truth to his longtime interest in Catholicism, and, in particular, the Virgin Mary.

The film was released in France in 2022, and is playing as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival starting Jan. 12.

“Stay With Us,” kicks off when Elmaleh, who’s been living in the U.S. for a few years, returns home to Paris. He’s booked a hotel room but his father, David, and mother, Régine, insist he spend at least a night in the spare room, where the grandkids typically stay. Back at home Régine catches Elmaleh watching a Catholic procession on his laptop (worse than porn). Later, when Régine goes through his luggage, she finds a statue of the Virgin Mary wrapped in a bath towel.

There’s a secret reason for Elmaleh’s homecoming: During the day, Gad is meeting with a nun and a priest to prepare for his first scrutiny, a step on his way to the baptismal font. At night he’s doing stand-up, sprinkling his set with new theological concerns.

Everyone who hears about Elmaleh’s plans is scandalized. But he insists he’s merely following a path laid out for him when, as a child in Casablanca, he snuck into a church sanctuary — an act forbidden by his parents — and saw a statue of the Virgin. He says she’s been protecting him ever since.

By converting, Elmaleh is not planning to abandon his family or his roots, though this is what they all fear. One friend from Morocco says it would be easier on his parents to convert to Islam, rather than join the church that expelled Sephardic Jews from Spain. Desperate to counter her son’s plans, Régine even enters a church to tell Mary, “He already has a mother: me.”

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Though “Stay With Us” has some amusing jokes, including Elmaleh’s reluctance to accept Jesus along with Mary (Jesus’ whole “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” is “too much,” Elmaleh says, though definitely something “only a Sephardic Jew would say”), it lacks much of the over-animated zip Elmaleh’s comedy is famous for. Instead, it is a sincere piece that, while trying to tackle the intricacies of faith, doubt and identity, comes off as more self-indulgent than searching.

Elmaleh considers lying to his parents about going through with the baptism and meets with two real rabbis, an Orthodox man and non-Orthodox woman, who identify his connection to the Catholic church as stemming from his concern for aesthetics and a listlessness of his spirit.

The draw of Mary remains mysterious, though, and the source of Elmaleh’s curiosity, reduced to one life-changing encounter in a forbidden space, never really clicks. While Elmaleh does a wonderful job of showing the beauty of Catholic ceremony, and the domestic ritual of Shabbat meals, his ultimate conclusion about how these two faiths can be reconciled is likely to be a hard sell for a Jewish film festival audience.

Throughout the runtime, Elmaleh invokes Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jewish-born archbishop of Paris, as an inspiration. The film ends with an onscreen quote from the cleric about his own conversion: “I thought that I became a Jew because, by embracing Christianity, I finally discovered the values of Judaism.”

This contention, long a talking point for the Messianic movement, seems like Elmaleh’s sincere conviction and can’t help but read a bit like proselytizing literature tagged on before the end credits.

Elmaleh deserves credit for broaching a taboo topic, but “Stay With Us” isn’t funny or deep enough to do the subject justice. The film’s worst offense is suggesting that the conversion of the massively talented Elmaleh would be no great loss for the Jews.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].