This episodic fable centers around a lanky cat living in the Mediterranean port city of Algiers circa 1930. The cat, unnamed, is the property of a devout, widowed rabbi nervously raising his rather sensual daughter. One day, much to the surprise of his owners, the cat gains the power of speech. (This occurs after he has eaten the family’s parrot, an act that might be likened to Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Or not. That’s just one of the many things to contemplate here.) At first the rabbi denounces this talking beast as an agent of Satan. The cat tries to get back in his master’s good graces by offering to have a bar mitzvah (circumcision being out of the question). It’s not that the cat is particularly religious—in fact, he seems rather agnostic—but he figures the religious ceremony will allow him to hang out again with Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter, whom he loves very much. The rabbi can’t find anyone crazy enough to perform a bar mitzvah for a cat and eventually gives up trying to stifle the now-chatty beast.
What follows is a curious series of picaresque sequences involving the cat, the rabbi, the daughter and a rotating collection of Middle Eastern types. The rabbi takes a French dictation test, the cat loses his voice, the rabbi’s lion-taming cousin shows up for a visit, a box of Torahs sent from communist Russia turns out to contain a passionate Russian painter. Eventually the young painter leads the Rabbi, a mad Russian adventurer, an elderly sheik, a singing donkey and an African barmaid on a quest to find a mythical land full of black Jews.
Visually the film is nothing but a treat, preserving the tiny lines and crosshatching of Sfar’s published work and making the entire thing look like a living pen-and-ink sketch. Pastel colors pop, detailed backdrops dazzle. The story, unconcerned with tidy plot points, is mostly structured like an old adventure comic—probably the very kind Sfar grew up on. There’s even a nice dig at a certain young French reporter and his pet pooch. If the film’s freewheeling structure leaves its ultimate point somewhat elusive, there’s at least a fine sense of humor to the proceedings. The cat’s constant questioning of his master makes for some very amusing, highly Socratic dialogues.
The Rabbi’s Cat is a choppy, wild, unpredictable ride. Individual scenes don’t always stitch together in terms of theme or tone, and the moral remains ambivalent. Still, it’s a vivid, witty, lushly imagined fable for the religiously philosophical among us.
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