“Kidnapped”: A movie for your consideration

“Kidnapped”: A movie for your consideration

Eric A. Goldman

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

This is an overwhelming time for most of us. The fragility of Jewish life has never before been so omnipresent. This week, legendary director Marco Bellocchio’s “Kidnapped: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara” was released in theaters, reminding us that the comfort we have felt as Jews is no longer a certainty — as if we need a reminder.

Today, the word “kidnap” brings us swiftly to the horrendous kidnappings Hamas committed on October 7.

In 1858, a 6-year-old Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy, was kidnapped. The boy, Edgardo Mortara, was abducted by the papal police, brought to Rome, and raised under the guidance of the pope. It was alleged that he had been baptized — and church canon held that if a child has been baptized, that child is a Catholic. The movie tells Edgardo Mortara’s story.

At a talk I attended last week, the speaker mentioned a fear he had felt as a child, living in Queens, walking home one day. He feared that a priest might kidnap him. He called that fear a “Mortara moment.”

When Edgardo Mortara was a baby, his nurse baptized him. That is all the church needed to know in order to take him away — a kidnapping that apparently happened to scores of Jewish children in Italy. The boy’s parents desperately reached out to the Jewish community; together with world leaders, they tried to convince Pope Pius IX to return the child. But the pope dug in and refused to allow the child to leave his custody.

The situation created an international furor, a cause célèbre — “The Mortara Affair.” This event, along with France’s Dreyfus affair, were noteworthy 19th-century moments when the risk that was an inherent part of the Jewish condition was laid bare. That was more than a century ago — but it is not necessary to remind this readership about events of the 20th century.

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s tried to defuse some of the problematic aspects of church canon, many put into place under this same notorious Pius IX. This included the condemnation of “hatred and persecutions of Jews” and rejection of the notion that Jews are guilty of deicide. What it failed to remove was church law that states that once someone is baptized, whether willingly or not, that person forever is Catholic. Church leaders since have noted that they would never follow this. Yet Church Canon 868, still in place, specifically says that “an infant of non-Catholic parents, in danger of death, may be baptized, even against the will of the parents.” Once baptized, that child is Catholic. Demands for this law’s removal have gone unheeded.

Bellocchio, an octogenarian considered one of Italy’s finest directors, has never shied away from taking aim at the church. Pius IX, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2000, despite protests by Mortara family descendants and the Jewish community, is a target he clearly relishes. This is a pope who was contemptuous of Jews, sending us back into the ghettos, and who was responsible for the repeal of a new constitution that would have afforded Jews many rights. Bellocchio’s new film, taking direct aim at the papacy, is a superb and gripping telling of the story. I was infuriated, shuddering throughout, watching the vulnerability of the peaceful, upper-middle-class Mortara family. They were good people who respected authority, yet they lived in such conditions of oppression.

I am thrilled that the non-Jewish Bellocchio would take on this story, but disappointed that the subject had not been adapted earlier by a Jewish filmmaker. I had believed that the years of trepidation and cowering were over. I am reminded that in the first half of 20th century, non-Jews directed most of the motion pictures most important to Jews. The most powerful prewar movie touching on Nazi persecution, “The Great Dictator,” was made in 1940 by the non-Jewish Charlie Chaplin. The groundbreaking postwar film on antisemitism, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” was produced in 1947 by Darryl F. Zanuck, a midwestern Methodist.

Since then, that fear and apprehension have dissipated, and we have been treated to significant film works on important Jewish subjects crafted by Jews. Two years ago, Steven Spielberg, to his credit, released “The Fabelmans,” a film that was not only autobiographical, but also a scathing indictment of antisemitism. Yet, a few years back, Spielberg’s hoped-for, film on the Mortara case fizzled. Was there concern that such a hot topic might negatively impact what are considered today generally positive Christian-Jewish relations? Whatever the reason, the film about a crime against all Jews was made by an Italian non-Jew.

What Marco Bellocchio has shown us is that cinema remains a powerful force in helping combat wrongs in the world. That said, Jewish filmmakers should continue to step up and be in the forefront, creating cinema that can make a difference for the Jewish community. The time has also come for the Vatican to remove from church canon any law that allows anyone to baptize a child without permission, for any reason whatsoever.

Eric A. Goldman of Teaneck is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University and host of the monthly television series “Jewish Cinematheque” on the Jewish Broadcasting Service.

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