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Italian film sparks debate on Jewish child kidnapped by 19th-century pope

Rome’s chief rabbi said modern defenses of the case are “astonishing.”

“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862. Credit: Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main via Wikimedia Commons.
“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862. Credit: Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main via Wikimedia Commons.

A new Italian film that tells the real-life story of a Jewish child papal authorities removed from a family and baptized secretly in the mid-19th century is drawing criticism from some Jewish leaders, including Rome’s chief rabbi.

The historical drama “Rapito” (“Kidnapped”), directed and co-written by Marco Bellocchio, recently debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. It explores the story of Edgardo Levi Mortara in a narrative loosely based on the book Il Caso Mortara by Daniele Scalise, which was highly critical of the papal role in the scandal.

In 2016, Steven Spielberg said he wished to direct a film on the topic, although the project was allegedly scrapped due to casting issues.

Speaking to Variety, Bellocchio said: “It’s likely that Spielbergs’s project would have been completely different. He would have done it in English. For us, we really wanted to stand up for the fact that this Jewish family was living on Italian soil.”

Institutionalized antisemitism

Mortara was born in Bologna in 1851 to Jewish parents. In June 1858, the then-6-year-old was removed from his family by papal police on the instruction of the Bologna inquisitor, who said that the child was baptized without his parents’ knowledge by a Christian servant during an illness in infancy.

The forcible removal of Mortara from his family on religious grounds has sparked debate about the infringement of both the rights of the child and his parents. Some also cite the case as an example of institutionalized antisemitism in Italian history.

A photo of Father Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother and another man, perhaps a brother of Edgardo, taken between 1878 and 1890. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Martina Mampieri, an expert on Italian-Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told JNS that the case’s history is complicated in the Italian public memory.

According to ecclesiastical law, the baptized child was considered Christian, and as such, was educated as a Catholic over the “desperate opposition of his family,” Mampieri said. Pope Pius IX became the boy’s “substitute” father.

“Despite the pleas of the Mortara family, the Jewish communities and notable figures such Lionel Rothschild and Moses Montefiore, the child remained in Rome, grew up as a Catholic and later trained for the priesthood,” she said. “He never returned home as a child and never wanted to as a grown-up. On the contrary, after becoming a priest, he spent his whole life preaching for the conversion of the Jews in Europe and North America.”

In fact, according to Mampieri, in the early modern period, a parent, grandparent, another family member or servant would frequently kidnap children for baptism against their parents’ wishes.

‘We are all compelled to look at it’

Former professor Elèna Mortara, author of the 2015 book Writing for Justice: Victor Séjour, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and the Age of Transatlantic Emancipations, is the great-granddaughter of Ernsta Mortara, a sibling of Edgardo’s.

“The story was well-known to me and very alive among all the members of my Jewish family,” she told JNS.

Mortara praised the film, which she called “powerful and beautiful,” and “a family drama, having as its main protagonists a kidnapped child and his Jewish family on the one hand, and on the other hand, the pope, whose Inquisition had ordered the kidnapping.”

There was an international scandal at the time, according to Mortara, but that controversy “was then almost forgotten in Italian public memory until today.”

“Thanks to this moving film, which creatively reconstructs the story in a special mixture of fidelity to the facts and strength of imagination, this historical episode and all the issue of forced baptisms is brought to public attention,” she said. “We are all compelled to look at it.”

Some commentators in Catholic magazines have said that Pius IX’s behavior is justifiable, based on the culture of the time, according to Mortara.

“The truth is that even at that time, most Catholic liberals were scandalized by the pope’s refusal to give the child back to his family,” she said.

Sir Moses Montefiore, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, attempted to intercede on behalf of the Mortara family. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Riccardo Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, wrote on the subject in a letter to the center-left Italian newspaper La Repubblica on May 29. “The official defenses of Pius IX and his persecutory apparatus, which are appearing these days from many parts of the Catholic world, are, if not astonishing, at least worrying,” he wrote.

Davide Jona Falco, a Union of Italian Jewish Communities board member, told JNS that Elèna Mortara successfully petitioned the director to change the name of the film from “Conversion” (Conversione) to “Kidnapped” (Rapito).

“The Italian Jewish community, always composite, has not expressed an official position regarding the film, but many of its institutions expressed appreciation for the film and concern for some of the reactions it has provoked,” he said.

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