(2011)3Nathan SouthernAs adapted from Joann Sfar's graphic novel Le Chat du Rabbin, and co-directed by Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux, the animated saga The Rabbi's Cat begins in French Algeria during the 1930s. The main character, Rabbi Sfar (voiced by Maurice Bénichou), is a kindly middle-aged Jewish clergyman with a beautiful daughter (Hafsia Herzi) in her late teens or early twenties, and a crafty feline pet (François Morel) who stuns his owners by suddenly speaking in perfectly nuanced French. Sfar and Delesvaux follow the lives of father, daughter, and pet, with events that wax alternately cerebral, surreal, whimsical, and occasionally, bizarre -- such as a key substory in which a Russian Jewish boy arrives in a mailed crate, having fled Eastern Orthodox religious persecution in his native land. The film culminates with a lengthy adventure where a group of men, including Sfar, the said émigré, a hotheaded Russian anti-Semite, and several others, venture into Africa in search of a fabled land where Solomon and Sheba once allegedly parented a new race -- the unification of Africans and Jews.
The first thirty minutes of this picture fare very poorly. While the creators lavished the movie with spectacular animation and wondrous background illustrations on par even with Sylvain Chomet or Michel Ocelot, the content initially feels less surefooted -- in lieu of a traditional narrative, Sfar and Delesvaux give us a series of theologically and racially themed dialectics, between Sfar and the cat, and Sfar and several other sages. This suggests that the filmmakers were aiming for a sort of heady meditation on world religions. Yet these discussions have no momentum -- and they threaten to bring the movie to a screeching halt. Compounding the film's issues is its surprisingly bawdy and risqué humor; for instance, the cat develops a romantic and sexual attraction to the human daughter, whom he seductively refers to as his "maitresse" (literally, mistress), and he erotically nuzzles up between her breasts on a couple of occasions. The two directors probably intended this sort of material as comic relief, to offset the dry cerebralism of the socratic dialogues; while you can fully understand the logic belying that move, it doesn't really work as manifested here. One has difficulty envisioning any audience demographic that would respond to this oddball combination -- the (very few) viewers delighted by the religious lectures will be put off by the low-brow humor, and vice versa.
However, the movie does improve considerably as it rolls forward. The narrative cohesion that the saga desperately needs in its first half suddenly materializes in the second, as the men and the feline undertake their African pilgrimage; we get more easily digestible, and lucid, observations about race, religion, and racial history. These passages cohere thematically as well -- Sfar and Delesvaux use the events to meditate on the ultimate erosion of racial and religious boundaries as a channel to world peace. Yet their view is a pragmatic one, one that keeps its feet on the ground: When two of the travelers finally reach the aforementioned mythical city, the filmmakers temporarily shift styles to a much more "cartoonish" look, as if driving home the utopian impracticality of the said ideal, at least in the context of the early 20th century. This is not only an inspired visual analogue of the theme in the film's later passages, but -- it must be said -- an ingenious one as well.
It's rare in our era to find a cinematic subgenre that has never been tapped before, but The Rabbi's Cat comes close. It's far from a perfect picture, and in the early stages, feels wholly unsatisfying. Yet a handful of brilliant scenes and a knockout visual schema compensate for this to a surprising degree -- enough, in fact, to merit a moderate recommendation for fans of the offbeat.
A rabbi in 1930s Algeria is shocked when his cat gains the power of speech, and begins offering scathing criticisms of religion and social mores while lusting after his owner's adolescent daughter. Based on the graphic novel by Joann Sfar.