In Development with Steven Spielberg: Q&A with David I. Kertzer

Steven Spielberg/Photo © Jaguar PS/Shutterstock

It was announced earlier this month that iconic Hollywood producer and director Steven Spielberg - winner of four Oscars, seven daytime Emmys, four DGA Awards, three Golden Globes, four primetime Emmys, and countless others - attached himself to the development of the movie adaptation of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, by David I. Kertzer. The National Book Award-nominated book, which is being adapted by Tony Kushner ("Angels in America," "Lincoln"), is the true-life tale of a scandal involving the clandestine baptism of a young Jewish boy and his subsequent seizure by the Catholic Church. We caught up with Kertzer following the news break to talk about Spielberg, casting, and more.

SIGNATURE: Congratulations on the news of the forthcoming adaptation of your 1997 book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. What exciting news that Steven Spielberg is attached to it. Before we get to the story and the process of adaptation, can you share a bit about what, in particular, in Spielberg's repertoire makes you most hopeful about his handling of this project?

DAVID KERTZER: Steven Spielberg is of course one of the great filmmakers of our time, but he is also unusual in the range of films he makes. Alongside his various science fiction and action blockbusters - from "Jaws" and "ET" to "Jurassic Park" and the "Indiana Jones" movies - he has made a number of films on serious historical subjects. I am thinking here of such films as "Schindler's List," "Amistad," and, most recently, "Lincoln." These are films that have had a tremendous impact on our culture, and reach a much, much larger audience with serious history than any book can hope to do.

SIG: Let's talk about the book: The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara begins with a knock on the door of the Mortara family in Italy, 1858. It comes to light as the story progresses that Edgardo - born and raised a Jew for the first six years of his life - was actually baptized by the help at a time when he was ill. Because of Papal Law at that time, it was illegal for a non-Catholic to raise a Catholic child - and so Edgardo, at the age of six, was taken from his parents to be raised by the Catholics. What was it that first attracted you to this story?

DK: I had been doing historical research in Bologna, Italy, for years, when an American colleague who works in Italy mentioned the case of the little Jewish boy who was taken from his family by the Inquisitor of Bologna in 1858. I knew nothing about the story and, out of curiosity at first, began to look into it. I was flabbergasted to discover that the dramatic events around the taking of the child, which had such huge reverberations at the time, had been almost entirely forgotten. The more I learned about both the desperate family drama - as the parents tried to get their six-year-old child back - and the larger role all this played in the fall of the Papal States, the more convinced I was that I should write a book to bring this forgotten episode back to life.

SIG: What was the biggest challenge for you during the research of writing the book?

DK: As an academic, doing the research in archives in Bologna and in Rome was extremely rewarding, with new discoveries constantly popping up. Had I simply been writing the book for other historians, it would have been a fairly straightforward process. But I was convinced that this was a story that would interest a much broader audience. It was an unknown history full of drama and human interest that needed to reach many more people than would read an academic tome. So the greatest challenge was finding a way to tell a gripping story that would interest a broad audience, while at the same time adding, in some significant ways, to what historians know about this transformative period of history.

SIG: What piece of the story - as narrated within your book or otherwise - are you most enthusiastic about seeing realized on the big screen?

DK: In Tony Kushner, whom Steven Spielberg has chosen to write the screenplay, I have one of the country's great writers, an incredibly talented literary figure. One of the great thrills of seeing the film made is to watch his screenplay take shape. It is hard for me to put my finger on one particular episode that I am eager to see on the screen. To tell the truth, I am dying to see how Tony and Steven Spielberg interpret everything in the story. Certainly one of the mysteries of this history is exactly when the small child, taken in by the pope, begins to switch his allegiance from his parents to the pope and the Church. I am eager to see just how Kushner and Spielberg show this on the screen.

SIG: Your book is nonfiction - and incredibly rich in detail thanks to your extensive research. How much creative liberty are you expecting the screenwriter to take with the material?

DK: I have dealt with this question earlier when Alfred Uhry - one of America's best known playwrights - wrote a play based on my Mortara book. What I learned is that these other artistic forms cannot be judged by the same yardsticks as a work of nonfiction. I have known Tony Kushner for almost two decades and have tremendous respect for him. I know how serious he is about getting the history right, but at the same time I know that in telling a story that will be a compelling film, some liberties will have to be taken. I have faith that Tony - and Spielberg - will respect the important contours of the history. I am also pleased that they have asked me to serve as the historical consultant for the film, another sign of their interest in making sure the history is portrayed as accurately as possible.

SIG: Might you be willing to share any casting hopes with us?

DK: Hmmm. It does seem that everyone who has read the book, on hearing of the movie, wants to know who will play the pope, the Inquisitor, the boy's father and mother .... And then, of course, there is the challenge of finding the actor to play six-year-old Edgardo. On the latter point, Steven Spielberg is someone who has done well in finding exactly such small child stars for major film roles. I actually don't have any strong feelings about actors at this point, and feel great confidence in Steven Spielberg's ability to attract the best actors in the world for the film.

SIG: What do you most hope audiences get out of the movie or your book?

DK: The film will offer an eye-opening view of a dramatic period of history that most people don't know. Who knows that the Inquisition was active in the second half of the nineteenth century? That Jewish children were torn away from their parents by papal police as recently as 1858? That Rome was only conquered in 1870 by military force as Italian troops defeated the papal army? But I hope audiences will not only learn some of this history, and find it fascinating, but also that the film will cause them to reflect on some huge problems the world confronts today. The film tells the story of what happens when church and state are not separated, when religious authorities have police powers. This is the story of what happens when some people think that they have exclusive access to God's will and believe that all others are doing the work of the Devil. It is a story that is all too relevant to much of the world today ....