LONDON — It’s a cold and windy day in central London. The main road is deserted, but duck down a side street and suddenly there are hundreds of small children — in what’s generally not a child-friendly area.
Here, queuing up outside some unpromising-looking office blocks, are a slew of parents hoping their offspring will become the next Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame.
Unlike Harry Potter, however, the children vying for this role are unlikely to get any comic or light-hearted feedback. This is an open casting call for Steven Spielberg’s latest feature film, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” — and with shooting due to start in April, the lead has yet to be cast.
“Edgardo” is the true story of the 1858 seizure of the 6-year-old Jewish child, Edgardo Levi Mortara, from his family in Bologna, Italy.
After falling ill as a baby, Mortara was ostensibly baptized in secret by his nursemaid, who was afraid he was going to die. Unfortunately for the Mortara family, the helper, Anna Morisi, confessed under interrogation to Father Pier Feletti, the Inquisitor of Bologna, what she had done.
Feletti told the Papal States, which ruled the region, and an order was issued that the baptism not only made Edgardo a Catholic, but that papal law forbade Catholic children from being brought up by those of other faiths.
On the night of June 23 1858, police came to to the Bologna home of the Mortaras and took Edgardo away, ultimately putting him under the direct protection of Pope Pius IX.
The family, as may be imagined, was distraught — and contemporary reports say that Edgardo’s mother, Marianne, was not only hysterical but near death as a result of her son’s removal. Endless pleas by the Mortara family to the Vatican authorities were in vain, and by the time his father visited him in the late summer of that year, Edgardo had learned the Catholic catechism and was becoming familiar with the Christian faith.
The case became an international scandal involving anti-Catholic forces in the United States, the Rome Jewish community, and even 19th century Victorian Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. But all efforts to return Edgardo to his family failed — and, in fact, the priests in charge of him tried to make the Mortaras convert to Christianity.
Doubts were cast on the testimony of the illiterate nursemaid as to whether she had genuinely baptized the little boy — not least because at the time she claimed to have done so, she herself was sick. But nothing worked for the Mortaras.
Eventually, Edgardo Mortara not only converted to Christianity but became a Catholic priest, and died, aged 88, in Belgium in 1940. He made endless, though unsuccessful, efforts to persuade his parents to convert throughout his life.
Two Hollywood bigwigs, Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein, have been so attracted by the dramatic possibilities of the Mortara story that they are shooting competing films.
And both have reportedly cast their pope — Spielberg has picked award-winning British actor Mark Rylance, while Weinstein is understood to have cast Robert De Niro.
Spielberg has also named Golden Globe nominee Oscar Isaac for his film. But to date, neither Spielberg nor Weinstein has found the right boy to play Edgardo Mortara.
On Sunday, in addition to the London open call audition, there were casting calls held simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Miami, and Chicago. Spielberg’s casting directors are said to have scoured Jewish schools in Britain, North America and Australia, looking for “a truly special boy, up for a challenge… a gifted and intelligent boy with a mischievous streak who appears to be Jewish and Italian.”
In London, at any rate, the parents who had brought their sons, aged between 6 and 9 — together with some reluctant sisters hanging on — did not appear to be familiar with the details of the Mortara case. One mother said that she had brought her son, Rory, aged 9, “for fun,” as the boys were going to have a morning of drama games and have their pictures taken.
Kevin Wright brought his son Luke, aged nine.
“He goes to acting classes at the weekend and has made a TV commercial for a charity,” the father said, “but he’s got no real experience.”
What would Luke do if he won the part? “I’m happy to catch up on my homework,” he said, eyeing the prospect of time off school with glee.
Some parents were clearly well-informed about auditions and how they work; others appeared completely clueless. Although the advertisements outlining the casting call had stated “he should appear to be a Jewish Italian boy,” there were some families who were confident that they could override that condition.
Little Veer, aged 6, and his mother, plainly came from an Indian background, while further down the queue waiting to get in were a variety of children of all races.
Matthew Ziff had brought his son and cheerfully admitted that he thought his 7-year-old was too fair to look Italian — “though he’s Jewish. His sister acts and he is an absolute drama queen…”
One parent, with some optimism, had brought twin sons, while further down the queue another father was coaching his son to say a couple of lines once he got inside.
Some of the boys were cocky, too cool for school, while others — mainly the younger ones — looked bewildered and contented themselves with chasing London’s ever-present pigeons.
Nobody was saying if Spielberg was inside the London casting offices, although boys who did well in the morning were due to be asked to return in the afternoon to read from a script.
And since Edgardo Mortara, in real life, was the sixth of eight children, there was always a chance that some of Sunday’s hopefuls would get to play a Mortara sibling.