Gad Elmaleh, the director and star of the movie Stay with Us, which was released in Israel on March 23, is also one of France’s best-loved comedians, so I decided to challenge myself by trying to make him laugh and opened our interview with a joke.
Because I’m from America, I told him, Israelis often ask me in December, “When is Christmas this year?”
He laughed – mission accomplished. But then he embellished it, saying the line with an Israeli accent and, of course, it was much funnier. The Moroccan-born Jewish comic added, “I also speak Arabic and I’m very into Arabic culture and Moroccan culture. It could work also from someone who is Muslim, but with a different accent.”
Huge in France
Elmaleh, who peppers his conversation with Hebrew words and the phrase “to be honest,” speaks excellent English with a charming accent and clearly is comfortable in many cultures. After his hugely successful stand-up and movie career in France, he moved to America and tried to make it there, a journey he explored and mined for comedy in the Netflix series Huge in France, and in a Netflix special.
But in the movie Stay with Us, he heads back to France and tells a story about a 50-ish comedian named Gad, raised in a traditional Mizrahi family, who has become fascinated with Christianity and has decided to convert. Much of the film is about how he breaks the news to his family. To add to the autobiographical element, his parents and his sister play themselves in the movie.
Asked how much of the movie is really his story, he said, “It’s not a documentary but some people think it’s all true.... They also converted me on my Wikipedia [page], it says that I have converted because I did this movie.... Don’t get me wrong, my interest and my curiosity and my fascination about Christianity is real. I’ve been studying, I’ve been really curious, but I didn’t convert.
“One thing that really happened is that when I was a kid in Morocco and I studied in yeshiva... one day I entered a church because my dad said don’t ever go in this building, never, it’s assur [Hebrew for forbidden].” As a rebellious child, he had to see what was inside and defied his father. “I discovered the church... it was a very quiet place, beautiful, where I could rest, calming, spiritually inspiring, so that’s the true starting point.”
Casting his own family in the film was not a simple decision, but he is pleased with how it worked out.
“To be honest, directing your parents is not easy, it’s not natural.” When they agreed to play themselves in the movie, “They hadn’t read the script and, if I want to be more honest, if they had read the script, they would have never said okay to doing the movie, because my parents were the first people to be shocked by my interest for Christianity.”
In the scene where his mother discovers that he has a statue of the Virgin Mary in his room, “My mom, on that day of shooting, realized that I was really into this whole story of Virgin Mary, and her reaction was so real we put two cameras on her so we don’t miss anything and it was just magical.... Her reaction feels totally authentic.”
Now that they have seen the movie, however, “They are so proud and flattered, my parents are 84 years old [and] they have big posters of themselves on the Champs-Élysées with their son.... My mom is so happy that they recognize her in the street and from the movie and she gets a lot of tenderness, a lot of sweet comments, a lot of love and it’s very funny because sometimes even some Jewish religious people, they come up to my mom and they cannot really argue with her so they say something hamoud [Hebrew for cute].... She said, ‘Don’t listen to anyone, it’s good that you follow your heart.’”
In the film, he visits two real rabbis, one an Orthodox rabbi and the other a non-Orthodox female rabbi, and viewers may be surprised that they impart a similar message to the one his mother expressed.
“I let them improvise and... that’s why it sounds so real and surprising. Yes, that’s what the rabbi said to my father, ‘So what – he’s in love with the Virgin Mary.’ I was shocked, I was laughing behind the camera.... What he is saying is so smart, because it’s so deep and there’s such a Jewish aspect in this response.”
Not everyone was charmed
NOT EVERYONE has found the movie and its portrayal of Christianity so charming, but he was expecting that: “I’m not crazy.” The movie has sold over half a million tickets in France, which he said was very good for a low-budget film, “but the reactions in France were really divided, especially in the Jewish community and I got into a big controversial debate.”
Introducing the movie at its screening at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, where it opened the 20th French Film Festival in Israel, he joked about social media’s response to the film among French Jews, where they would chat about how much they hated the movie and would also say that they hadn’t seen it.
“I am not blaming them because they are reacting as if they were family, being afraid that they are going to lose me.” He said that the French title, Reste un peu, means “stay a little,” but that he was happier with the title in Hebrew and English, Stay with Us. “I want to take this title and translate it back into French.”
In the end, though, the movie sparked “a real straightforward and constructive debate and conversation” among the French-Jewish community, although Elmaleh admits the process wasn’t easy for him. But he doesn’t seem to be interested in having an easy life, since he chose to put his interest in Christianity front and center in a film – costarring his real parents – and earlier decided to try his luck in the US after his phenomenal success in France.
Asked why he has chosen to make his life so difficult – “Was it really so hard to just go on being a successful, rich Jewish comedian in France?” I asked – he laughed long and hard, the second time I got a laugh from him.
“I’m gonna use this in my act, because it’s funny, I’m going to say that a journalist from Israel said, ‘What the hell is wrong with Gad?’.... I don’t really know the answer but the only thing I know is that when it gets comfortable, I get into a panic.... The thing I never want to experience is to say to myself, ‘I am not excited anymore.’”