By: Jon Bowman Published online: Friday, January 25, 2013 Appeared in: Pasateimpo
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After snacking on a
parrot, a cat acquires the power of speech.
And he’s not just a talker but also an
acerbic wit with an earthy, salacious outlook on the
world. All the better to guide his kindly rabbi master,
living in a byzantine time and place, an Algerian port
city in the 1930s. This animated feature from France
offers shimmering hand-drawn scenes that give a
dreamy hue to the exotic setting and story. It’s quite
special — more for adults than children — but ends
on a less satisfying note as the rabbi, cat, and friends
venture off into the desert in an Indiana Jones-style
escapade, seeking a mythical Jewish kingdom.
Not rated. 89 minutes. In French with subtitles.
The Rabbi’s Cat, animated feature, not rated,
in French with subtitles, CCA Cinematheque,
Echoing the wisecracking telepathic dog in Harlan
Ellison’s novella A Boy and His Dog, the central
character in The Rabbi’s Cat happens to be a talking
cat with a stinging wit, an amorous streak, and a
passion for theological debate. Being a rabbi’s cat,
the frisky feline announces he plans to convert
to Judaism. But when the rabbi informs him that
circumcision is out of the question, the cat bargains
downward, insisting he be bar mitzvahed.
In addition to its cheeky, kosher-approved humor,
this French animated feature benefits immensely
from its expressionistic, hand-drawn scenes depicting an exotic milieu — a teeming, multicultural
Algerian port city where Muslims, Jews, and
Christians mingle under the watchful command of
French colonizers in the 1930s. The stars sparkle
in the nighttime sky like they were painted by van
Gogh, casting a clean and penetrating light on the
cityscape below, accentuating the mosaic perfection
of its architecture.
Other scenes recall the artwork of Marc Chagall,
combining an explosive blaze of colors and textures
to shape a series of dreamy, folkloric tableaux. The
rich details, the sumptuous curved forms, and even
the throwaway doodles underscore how much we’re
missing now that computer-driven animation has
come to dominate the craft, rendering it more generic
and generalized. The Rabbi’s Cat is a much quirkier
and more personal work, which is hardly surprising,
considering the source. It originated as several
episodes of a graphic novel by Joann Sfar, who
stepped forward to co-direct the film version with
While not strictly autobiographical, the story
draws upon Sfar’s mixed Jewish heritage. Born in
Nice, France, the 41-year-old comic artist and film-
maker is the son of a Sephardic Jewish father and
an Ashkenazi mother with roots in Ukraine. Sfar
has imagined a tale in which a wise, gentle-hearted
rabbi from Algeria provides sanctuary for a dislodged
Jewish painter from Russia, driven from his home-
land in a pogrom. The cat serves as their interpreter
and helps us interpret the clash of customs and
rituals as these Jews encounter Muslim scholars,
Tuareg warriors, and sundry desert nomads.
But the cat doesn’t merely act as a Greek chorus,
politely framing the action. He can be a mischievous
cad and scoundrel, for instance, shamelessly lying
about devouring a pet parrot — the act that gives
birth to the cat’s power of speech. This cat also
harbors an unnatural crush on Zlabya, the rabbi’s
voluptuous daughter. As she smothers him with
kisses, he stretches ever closer to her breasts.
The Rabbi’s Cat is really two films grafted together
at the hip, although one of the films seems fully
rounded and structurally sound while its companion
piece is more rushed, episodic, and less successful.
Sfar plays his strongest hand in the opening half,
introducing the rabbi’s household and circle of
close friends while illustrating his amiable, home-
spun approach to expressing his Jewish identity.
Sometimes he wrestles with matters of life and
death, but he’s usually preoccupied with more
mundane issues. He frets a lot over whether he can
improve his French and pass a spelling test. If not,
he’ll lose his job and be put out to pasture.
The film builds momentum as we come to know
the characters more intimately and likewise the
polyglot society they inhabit, tenuously held
together by the derisive French authorities, who
treat Jews and Muslims alike with disdain. True,
the pacing in the first half is slow, the action muted,
but it has a ring of authenticity about it that’s compelling. Less so the chaotic second half, in which
the rabbi, the Russian artist, and various colorful
sidekicks embark on an Indiana Jones-like excursion across the heart of Africa in search of a mythical
Jewish kingdom, a fabled homeland ruled over by
descendants of Queen Sheba and King Solomon.
This quixotic road trip gives the animators free reign
to pile on the adventures — including scraps with
crocodiles and scimitar-wielding Bedouins — but
somewhere deep in the Sahara, the movie begins to
lose its focus and its luster.
While there’s suddenly a swirl of activity, the
narrative begins to spin out of control. And, one
wonders, is this barricaded, militarized kingdom
meant to be some sort of metaphor for present-day
Israel? If so, it’s out of place, because it breaks the
illusion that we’ve been transported back in time
to the 1930s.
How much does this lack of restraint damage The
Rabbi’s Cat? Not enough to neuter it, but enough
to render the film less purr-fect than a potential
classic ought to be. We’re left with a movie that
looks dazzling but whose overall impact has been
diminished by a helter-skelter storyline.
Go see it for the shimmering visuals, the magical
setting and the always-valuable message: we’ll never
get along unless we learn to tolerate our religious
and cultural differences. Just don’t go expecting
everything to fit seamlessly together.
Deservedly, the film won the 2012 César award —
France’s equivalent of the Oscar — for best animated
feature. The vocal talents, who are all quite good,
include François Morel as the cat, Maurice Bénichou
as the rabbi, and Hafsia Herzi, the star of The Secret
of the Grain, as Zlabya. The Amsterdam Klezmer
Band performs the musical score.