Le Chat du Rabbin
DIRECTED BY: Joann Sfar, Antoine Delesvaux
PLOT: The adventures of a talking cat owned by an Algerian rabbi, who innocently blasphemes, wants to be bar mitzvahed, and tags along on a quest to find the black Jews of Africa.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Eccentrically conceived, The Rabbi’s Cat is an oddity of animated Judaica, but it’s not quite special enough to crack the List.
COMMENTS: Almost as strange as an Old Testament story, The Rabbi’s Cat begins in earnest when the titular feline swallows a rival pet—a parrot—and thereby gains the power of speech. The cat’s owners, a rabbi and his daughter, are surprised by this unusual development, but not quite as shocked as one might expect; the rabbi is more upset by the fact that the cat’s very first words are a lie (“I didn’t eat the parrot”) then he is by the fact that the conversation itself violates God’s laws of nature. That odd tone persists throughout this episodic film, which never finds a surefooted approach to its bizarre conceits but nonetheless remains witty and fascinating most of the time. The cat is conceived outside of human Jewish traditions, so he finds Bible stories ridiculous (“even a kitten wouldn’t fall for that!,” he complains about Genesis’ creation narrative), and when he blasphemes it seems innocent. But he also desires to be a Jew like his master and beloved mistress, and becomes obsessed with being bar mitzvahed, despite the fact that he shows no allegiance (and in fact a good bit of skeptical hostility) towards the teachings of the Talmud. The story is set in the 1930s in an Algeria populated by uneasily coexisting Jews, Arab Muslims and French Christians, but the multi-ethnic paradise of Algiers is eroding: antisemitism is on the rise, and Nazism lurks around the corner. Perhaps the turmoil of this pre-WWII world explains why the story is so jumbled up; or, perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that the film is adapted from a five-volume graphic novel series, and strains to fit in too many incidents, characters and storylines into its running time. In the course of the tale, the cat gains the power of speech, then loses it after uttering a forbidden name of God (although for unknown reasons he can still speak to other animals and to Russians); just as arbitrarily, he starts talking again after being treated for a scorpion sting. A cousin with a pet lion, a Russian Jew smuggled in a crate of books, a bloody duel between an alcoholic Tsarist and a scimitar-wielding Bedouin, and the cat’s semi-erotic obsession with his master’s curvy daughter also jostle for our attention. The animation style wanders almost as much as the narrative. Although most of the film is drawn in a style only a little more elaborate than Hergé’s “Tintin” scribblings, there’s a surrealistic dream sequence, done in an even simpler and more childlike style, in which the rabbi literally cries an ocean of tears then lounges in his own salty discharge (smoking a waterproof hookah and nibbling on passing fish). And for unexplained reasons, when the cat and his companions actually discover the ancient hidden city of the Ethiopian Jews, the style changes again, so that the characters now appear as bizarre Hanna-Barbera caricatures of themselves, complete with huge round eyes. Mildly surrealistic touches like this, along with the script’s disinterest into sticking to any one plot or style for very long, make this a weirder (and richer) experience than it had to be.
Sfar wrote five volumes of “The Rabbi’s Cat” comics between 2002 and 2006. In 2009 he paused his cartooning career and turned to film directing with the fantastical biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which incorporated a puppet to represent musician Serge Gainsbourg’s libido.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: