Looking for the meaning

Gad Elmaleh on Nanni Moretti, Woody Allen, Into Great Silence and Stay With Us

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Gad Elmaleh (fan of Nanni Moretti and Woody Allen films) on the set of Stay With Us (Reste Un Peu) with his parents
Gad Elmaleh (fan of Nanni Moretti and Woody Allen films) on the set of Stay With Us (Reste Un Peu) with his parents

Stand-up comedian Gad Elmaleh, the director and star of Stay With Us (co-written with Benjamin Charbit) plays a version of himself who explores a lifelong fascination with the Virgin Mary. After living in America, Gad returns to Paris, where he is welcomed by his parents, played by the actor’s actual mother and father, Régine and David, his sister Judith and old friends, which include the actor Roschdy Zem (star of Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! with Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier). Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Simone Veil, and Henri Bergson get a shoutout as Gad reflects on some wide-ranging questions on faith as he meets with a priest (Father Barthélémy played by Nicolas Port), a rabbi (Pierre-Henry Salfati), a nun (Catherine Thiercelin), a theologian (Frédéric Lenoir), and monks while humour is never far and erupts in most unexpected places.

Gad Elmaleh with Anne-Katrin Titze on Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille): “It’s about a monastery in France called la Grande Chartreuse and it’s a silent documentary by Philip Gröning.”
Gad Elmaleh with Anne-Katrin Titze on Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille): “It’s about a monastery in France called la Grande Chartreuse and it’s a silent documentary by Philip Gröning.”

As a small Jewish kid in Casablanca, his father told Gad to never ever enter a forbidden building. Mosques were fine and so of course were Synagogues, but that other one, not identified as a church, was a no-go. So begins the real-life and fictional journey by Gad Elmaleh into a kind of obsession, that, only in the film, leads him to believing or not that he wants to convert to Catholicism. Baby photos and home movies illustrate memories of the past, while the family struggles to accept his upcoming baptism.

From the South of France, Gad Elmaleh joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Stay With Us.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi! Thank you for those extra ten minutes. I just came running from the subway.

Gad Elmaleh: Okay, no problem! Are you in New York right now?

AKT: Yes, I am.

GE: Wow, everyone is running in New York anyway, no? Take your time, I am home, it’s all good.

AKT: Are you in Paris?

GE: Right now I’m in the South of France because my son lives in the South of France. I have a ten-year-old boy and I’ve come to see him. Now we are waiting for the person who comes to help with the homework. This is the one thing I don’t do. I do many things, but the homework, I kind of have no patience for that. We do so many things together but homework I have no patience with. Or maybe I don’t have the level.

AKT: Maybe. He is ten already. I can understand.

GE: I was in Berlin. I did a show there. Do you know the comedians over there?

AKT: Not so much, sorry, I have lived in the US for decades now. Give me some names!

GE: Michael Mittermeier…

Gad Elmaleh with Sister Catherine (Catherine Thiercelin)
Gad Elmaleh with Sister Catherine (Catherine Thiercelin)

AKT: No! He studied with me!

GE: What? That’s incredible!

AKT: Yes, at the LMU, Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. His name is probably the only name of a comedian I know. Say hello from me, though he won’t remember.

GE: I will!

AKT: Let’s talk about your film. From the beginning we are not absolutely sure where the autobiographic elements begin and where they end, what is you and what is invented, which is interesting because it keeps us on our toes. Earlier today I received an email about this year’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema programme here in New York and Nanni Moretti’s latest film, A Brighter Tomorrow, is part of the selection. He is the master of mixing these layers of auto-fiction!

GE: First of all, that’s a good reference and inspiration for me, Nanni Moretti, because I’ve been looking up to his work and watching a lot of his movies. He and Woody Allen are really the masters of taking the reality and trying to put it in the movies and I really love this method. Now for this subject, some of the story was true. The point of departure, the trigger, is me as a kid, born and raised in a Jewish family in Morocco, a Muslim country. When I was a kid my dad would tell me, don’t ever go into this building or enter there. And he didn’t even say what it was! So as a child, your dad tells you, you never go in there, the only thing you want to do is go in there.

Gad Elmaleh with Father Barthélémy (Nicolas Port)
Gad Elmaleh with Father Barthélémy (Nicolas Port)

AKT: Absolutely!

GE: And the day I opened the door, I was in front of the figure of the Virgin Mary for some reason I cannot explain. There is no epiphany, there is no miracle, there’s no vision, there is no person, there is just me totally fascinated and crying in front of the figure of the Virgin Mary. And then I started this kind of love story since I was a kid.

And that’s the real kind of departure that happened, that is autobiographical. After, it had to become a movie, so with my colleague Benjamin Charbit, who is an amazing screenwriter, we decided to make it a story in a movie, so we had to follow something. He had this idea of getting baptised, which is not what I experienced in my personal life or ever tried or wanted. I get very curious and am very interested in Christianity.

I read and I studied also so many things, I mean, I’m intrigued about all this, but I never wanted to get baptised. But I want to say that the truth and the reality is everywhere in the movie, because it’s played by my own parents. Also my sister is my sister, and the priest that is trying to talk and explain to me, and the rabbi, and the nun, the childhood friends, all those people are real characters in real life.

AKT: You mention Woody Allen as a second influence. Hannah And Her Sisters came to mind, where his character actually does convert, to several things. Then he finds the meaning of life, or what existence is all about, in the Marx Brothers’s Duck Soup. The connection between humour, comedy and the meaning of life is profound.

Gad Elmaleh on Nanni Moretti: “He and Woody Allen are really the masters of taking the reality and trying to put it in the movies and I really love this method.”
Gad Elmaleh on Nanni Moretti: “He and Woody Allen are really the masters of taking the reality and trying to put it in the movies and I really love this method.” Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

GE: Wow. Yeah, totally. I am such a big fan of his work and this kind of universe. But also always trying to stay and remain funny, that comedy can occur even in this movie where the subject is kind of an existential crisis. Also looking for the meaning of life and faith. I tried and I find that some moments are really funny.

When we screen the movie, I love when I hear [laughter] - I mean, that’s where I come from, from comedy. I’m a stand-up comedian also, so I’m used to that; I want people to laugh. And I want to hear them laughing, this is very important to me. It’s kind of thrilling when people laugh but it’s for something they really understood that you reveal. It’s such a gift.

AKT: Your mother is also very good at delivering lines. When she talks to the Virgin Mary and says something along the lines of, I don’t need to explain to you what it means to lose a son! That is incredible in her delivery!

GE: It’s funny that you remember this line. Not often do people mention this line and it’s really terrible and funny as well.

AKT: And then she tops it with, “At least yours came back!”

GE: Yeah, it’s really something sad, desperate, but also funny. This is the comedy I love. I am really happy to share that and that you mention that.

AKT: Are you a big list-maker in general? I love that list about pros and cons of conversion, including “never work with Spielberg again.”

Gad Elmaleh on buying the DVD of Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence: “It’s about a monastery in France called la Grande Chartreuse and it’s a silent documentary by Philip Gröning. I can’t wait to watch it.”
Gad Elmaleh on buying the DVD of Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence: “It’s about a monastery in France called la Grande Chartreuse and it’s a silent documentary by Philip Gröning. I can’t wait to watch it.”

GE: You know, yeah, kind of. I wanted to make it like stupid and reduce this deep question, this deep interrogation and quest into a stupid list like that and make it funny. Because it’s so stupid to think that you will never work again with Spielberg because you converted to Christianity, but I love these clichés and to play with them is such fun.

AKT: It does mirror real thoughts. I also like very much the moment in the monastery right before the baptism is about to take place and the monk says to you something like “So I’ve heard you work in a circus?” The deadpanness is fabulous.

GE: You know, I experienced these spiritual retreats in monasteries and one thing I observed is that those people there are in their world and so disconnected from the outside world. So I pushed it a little bit. I like that he has no idea who I am and he’s kind of rude a little bit. It’s really really interesting because it shows that people are not like we think.

I personally went three times to spiritual retreats with monks and I love it. Look, I just bought a DVD [Gad shows it to me]. It only exists on DVD. I just received it, it’s a second-hand DVD of Le Grand Silence [Into Great Silence]. It’s about a monastery in France called la Grande Chartreuse and it’s a silent documentary by Philip Gröning. I can’t wait to watch it, it’s kind of contemplative, you know?

AKT: I remember seeing it. It’s fantastic. From around 2005?

GE: Yeah, oh wow, you’ve seen it. I can’t wait to watch it. I’m really interested in the monastic life and retreats, but even there you can find comedy. Because, you know, when you eat in silence, that’s what I did with them, sometimes it’s really really funny.

AKT: I can imagine. I’d like to go back to the Virgin Mary for a moment. First of all, it’s so interesting that your father didn’t even tell you that it was a church and just called it this place where you don’t go! There is nothing more tempting than that.

Gad Elmaleh on his mother Régine being very good at delivering lines: “I am really happy to share that and that you mention that.”
Gad Elmaleh on his mother Régine being very good at delivering lines: “I am really happy to share that and that you mention that.”

GE: Especially when he doesn’t tell you that it’s a church, it’s intriguing, it becomes more than telling you. Probably if he had said it’s a church, I would have said, ah, a church, I’m not interested. But if you say there is something there you mustn’t see, it’s like wow, no, no, no, I want to understand. It’s kind of a mystery. The word mystery is often used in Christian texts in many meanings.

The mystery of faith. I think he kind of lit up something in my heart when he said it, he didn’t close something, he didn’t turn something off, he turned a flame on. He turned my curiosity towards this thing. When I saw the Virgin Mary, I thought this place is so quiet, so humbling. The smell is amazing! Why would we refrain people from going in there? As a kid you don’t even think about something religious. You don’t think about a safe space. Now we talk a lot about safe space. It was my safe space.

AKT: I don’t know if you know the fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, called The Virgin Mary’s Child. It’s a fascinating tale that in its structure is very similar to Bluebeard, La Barbe Bleue.

GE: Oh wow!

AKT: In it the Virgin Mary forbids a child who is living with her to enter one specific room that holds the Holy Trinity.

Gad Elmaleh with his mother Régine and father David
Gad Elmaleh with his mother Régine and father David

GE: I have to read this fairy tale!

AKT: It plays exactly with the theme of temptation and with what one is not supposed to see. The connection between enlightenment and knowledge and the forbidden is central.

GE: That is really interesting! I’m going to look it up.

AKT: Did you ever go to Lourdes?

GE: Of course, a lot! I am also producing a big musical on stage that is now touring everywhere about Lourdes and the story of Bernadette. Lourdes is an amazing place. Have you been?

AKT: No, but I recently did an interview with Jessica Hausner, who directed ten years ago the film Lourdes with Léa Seydoux.

GE: She did a film about Lourdes? Léa is a friend of mine, I know her. Would you send me those two references?

AKT: Of course.

GE: You are based in New York, right?

AKT: Yes.

GE: Sometimes we organise screenings of the show about Bernadette de Lourdes. We don’t bring all the show live for now, but sometimes we organise screenings of that and it’s really interesting. I will let you know.

Stay With Us opens at the Quad Cinema in New York on Friday, May 10.
Stay With Us opens at the Quad Cinema in New York on Friday, May 10.

AKT: Please do and thank you for this!

GE: Thank you so much, it was very nice talking to you and please send me those references. I’m so much into it right now and I keep reading and studying. Really it’s great.

AKT: I’m not Catholic either, but I remember vividly as a child being worried that I might develop the stigmata. As a little kid finding it so terrifying and thinking, I hope I don’t get those!

GE: This is so funny! Because my son said something about that a few days ago. He said he was afraid to have that.

AKT: What’s your son’s name?

GE: Raphaël.

AKT: Tell him it didn’t happen to me, he should be fine, too. Thank you!

GE: Thank you so much and have a great day. For us it’s already almost dinner time!

AKT: And it’s lunch here.

GE: Take care, bye-bye, merci!

Stay With Us opens at the Quad Cinema in New York on Friday, May10.

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