"The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara" painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim from 1862. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Steven Spielberg movie to examine notorious Catholic kidnapping of Jewish boy

"The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara" painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim from 1862. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

BOLOGNA, Italy (RNS)  It was a heart-wrenching story that bitterly divided Catholics and Jews in Italy and provoked an international scandal more than 150 years ago.

Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy from Bologna, was secretly baptized by a maid when he fell ill and then forcibly removed from his family in 1858 at age 6 and raised as a Catholic with the blessing of Pope Pius IX.

Steven Spielberg at Cannes International Film Festival in 2016. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Georges Biard

Now Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg is making a film about the ill-fated battle by Mortara’s parents for the return of their son, who eventually became a priest. Oscar Isaac will play the adult Mortara and Mark Rylance has been cast as Pius; Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay.

Spielberg has been scouring the world for the right child actor to play the role of Mortara, and the film is certain to cast fresh light on this controversial real-life drama when it is released.

There is already speculation about how the movie will impact relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community at a time when Pope Francis has been a great promoter of religious dialogue.

Seated in his office above Bologna’s main synagogue, the city’s chief rabbi, Alberto Sermoneta, said Mortara’s story is worth remembering.

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“It is a symbol of the forced conversion that was done at the time,” Sermoneta told Religion News Service. “The spiritual leaders of that era breached human rights and the laws of nature by removing that child from his family. When I was a child at Jewish school, we all studied the Mortara case. It is shocking.”

People stroll through the Jewish ghetto of Bologna, Italy, on Feb. 12, 2017. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

For centuries, Bologna had a thriving Jewish community with strong links to the city's university, the oldest in the world. The city once boasted 11 synagogues and was also known for its Talmudic academies.

Under a papal decree issued in 1555, the Jews were forced to live in a ghetto as they did elsewhere in Italy, and in the decades that followed hundreds were expelled from Bologna for 200 years.

At the time of the Mortara kidnapping, Bologna was a papal state under the control of the Vatican.

Today, Sermoneta said, the community has good relations with the Catholic Church and the rabbi calls himself a friend of Bologna’s current archbishop, Matteo Zuppi.

Still, reckoning with the past is important for Sermoneta, whose aunt and three cousins were killed at Auschwitz.

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“I believe Spielberg will show the reality of what happened to Mortara,” he said. “And it is right for that to be done so people see the mistakes that were made.”

Creating dialogue with other faiths has been a priority for Pope Francis since his election four years ago.

Rabbi Alberto Sermoneta of the Bologna Synagogue in northern Italy on Feb. 12, 2017. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Francis invited then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pray for peace with him at a historic meeting at the Vatican in 2014 and called for Jews and Catholics to work together for peace during an emotional visit to the Rome synagogue in January last year.

On Thursday (Feb. 23), the pope received a group of rabbis at the Vatican, including his longtime friend from Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who presented him with a new edition of the Torah.

The Rev. Pio Edgardo Mortara, right, with his mother Marianna, circa 1878-90. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

“The fraternal and institutional dialogue between Jews and Christians is now well-established and effective, through ongoing and collaborative discussion,” the pope told the rabbis. “The gift that you are giving me today is very much a part of this dialogue.”

Earlier this week, the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome announced their first-ever joint exhibition on the history of the menorah, the Jewish symbol, which has also inspired Christian artworks and sculptures.

Asked about the Mortara case at the exhibition launch, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Swiss cardinal in charge of the Vatican body responsible for promoting Christian unity, said it had little relevance to relations between Jews and Catholics now.

“That’s an historic event,” he told RNS. “It has nothing to do with relations today.”

But Riccardo Di Segni, Rome’s chief rabbi, said the case meant a great deal to Jews and Spielberg’s film would create greater awareness about a personal story that had captured worldwide attention in the 19th century as well as forced conversions.

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“It became a huge political issue and a symbol of how the Catholic Church was resistant to the idea of freedom and religious coexistence,” Di Segni said.

For Italian Jews, another memorable case was that of 11-year-old Giuseppe Coen, who was removed from his family in Rome in 1864.

“For us there have been many cases like Mortara, dozens of cases, but that case became the symbol,” said Di Segni.

The interior of the Bologna Synagogue in northern Italy on Feb. 12, 2017. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The boy’s removal provoked outrage on both sides of the Atlantic and the case became a cause célèbre for Jews and Protestant Christians. Amid a lengthy legal struggle and diplomatic overtures to have the boy returned, there was plenty of press coverage of the case at the time. The New York Times published more than 20 articles on it.

“It showed the church could not continue to operate on the basis of medieval laws and it was a violation of human rights and our concept of the family,” said Lucio Pardo, former president of Bologna’s Jewish community.

“It stole Mortara’s adolescence, his father died of a broken heart and the family was destroyed.”

Mortara eventually became a priest and fled Rome rather than return to his family. He died in an abbey in Belgium in 1940.

(Josephine McKenna is RNS' Vatican correspondent)


  1. A mixed bag. Spielberg might be the only director with the clout to get this story made as a Hollywood production, but his version will most likely be wimpy and watered-down. One can’t imagine him giving the tale any real teeth.

    But no matter how mushy and compromised the film turns out to be, there is no doubt that we can look forward to some world-class whining and crying from Bill Donohue and the rest of the usual suspects. Those poor snowflakes will really be triggered and need to run to their safe space at Fox News.

  2. There’s no hiding it. The monster in this true horror story is Pope Pius IX. But let’s wait and see if Steven Spielberg is going to skip the politics of Catholic/Jewish ecumenism and just show this Vicar-of-Christ monster-character:

    (1) Refusing Edgardo Mortara’s parents’ desperate pleas for his return

    (2) Forcing Edgardo Mortara to grow up as his own son and, with his own name Pio added, change the name to Pio Edgardo Mortara

    (3) Obsessing over Edgardo Mortara throughout each other’s lifetime

    (4) Expressing disbelief that the rest of the world thinks he’s in the wrong, then advising them, “If it happened again, I would do the same thing”

    (5) Losing his papal territory due to his corrupt handling of The Mortara Case

    (6) Being beatified anyway into a saint, while Jewish critics condemned him for stealing and replacing Edgardo Mortara’s childhood, family tree and Judaism

  3. Joel Stein will tell you why a movie will never be made about blood libel.

  4. “Who runs Hollywood? C’mon.” December 19, 2008|JOEL STEIN

    How deeply Jewish is Hollywood? When the studio chiefs took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago to demand that the Screen Actors Guild settle its contract, the open letter was signed by: News Corp. President Peter Chernin (Jewish), Paramount Pictures Chairman Brad Grey (Jewish), Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger (Jewish), Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton (surprise, Dutch Jew), Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer (Jewish), CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves (so Jewish his great uncle was the first prime minister of Israel), MGM Chairman Harry Sloan (Jewish) and NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker (mega-Jewish). If either of the Weinstein brothers had signed, this group would have not only the power to shut down all film production but to form a minyan with enough Fiji water on hand to fill a mikvah.

  5. It might have been useful to point out that it was one of the predecessors of Pius IX who invited Jews expelled by Spain to Rome to live under his protection. Also, it is sad to see this blemish on Jewish/Catholic relations revived at a time when it is not Christians who are seeking the destruction of the State of Israel or the Jewish people. That threat lies elsewhere. Mr Spielberg might profitably spending his time reading Edwin Black’s excellent book “The Farhud,” which chronicles the Muslim alliance with Germany’s National Socialist government to purge the Middle East of Jews. In Iraq, nearly the entire Jewish community was murdered, deported, and stripped of their property and livelihoods by Muslim zealots aligned with the Nazi killing machine. Also, Mr Spielberg might have looked into the history of Muslim troops joining with Nazi Germany. None of the above is offered as an excuse for what Pius IX did, but it seems like an odd time to come out with a movie like this.

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