The Rabbi’s Cat
Arabesque animated fable offers a feline’s take on Middle Eastern religion
The Rabbi’s Cat
Directed by Antoine Delesvaux & Joann Sfar
Cast: Daniel Cohen, Hafsia Herzi, Mathieu Amalric, Fellag
From the very first frames, viewers can tell the adult-oriented French cartoon The Rabbi’s Cat is going to feature some lovely, bright animation and an exotic setting. That’s almost but not quite enough to leaven a muddled story that requires a bit too much contemplation. The film is based on the work of French comic book artist Joann Sfar, who wrote and directed the lavishly animated, mostly successful biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. Sfar co-writes and co-directs The Rabbi’s Cat, ensuring the artist’s vision is, for better or worse, fully preserved.
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.
The film’s random encounters and philosophical conversations seem to be hinting at some sort of plea for tolerance and cooperation among Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists, blacks, whites, Europeans, Middle Easterners, whoever. The story takes pains to point out the many similarities among peoples and religions. At one point, for example, distant relatives on opposite sides of the religious divide debate whether a common, ancient ancestor was a compassionate rabbi or a great imam. In this arabesque portrait of early 20th century religion and politics, fundamentalists, reformers and nonbelievers are free to argue over dogmatic points with (relatively) little bloodshed. Does the Second Commandment, for example, forbid images of other gods (as Christians seem to think), images of the One True God (as Jews have interpreted) or images of any sort in any kind of art (as some Muslims believe)? Unfortunately the film’s “Don’t we all believe the same basic thing?” argument is advanced with such gentility and so few concrete examples that it’s hard to pick up on. Perhaps those more well versed in Biblical (Talmudic?) storytelling will sift greater symbolic meaning from the film’s somewhat rambling episodes.
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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