1920s, Algiers, animated films, Antoine Delesvaux, cinema, films, French cinema, French films, graphic novel, Islam, Jews, Joann Sfar, Judaism, Movies, Rabbi Sfar, religious conflicts, talking cat, The Rabbi's Cat, Vastenov, Zlabya
For the past decade or so, there seems to have been a bit of a boom in adult animated features (think more Watership Down than Fritz the Cat, you pervs), especially those coming from France. While Japan has always been a leading distributor of mature animated films, including such landmark films as Akira (1988), Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Tokyo Godfathers (2003), there have been quite a few French films released between 2003-2013 that look set to springboard their way into the canon of classic animated films for grownups.
Films such as The Triplets of Bellevue (2003), Persepolis (2007), The Secret of Kells (2009), A Cat in Paris (2010), Tales of the Night (2011), A Monster in Paris (2011) and The Painting (2011) may all come from the same country but they’re just about as different from each other as can be. Add in an array of quality animated features from other countries, such as Waltz with Bashir (Israel, 2008), The Fantastic Mr. Fox (U.S., 2009), A Town Called Panic (Belgium, 2009), Mary and Max (Australia, 2009) and Chico and Rita (UK, 2010) and it’s been a great time for those who like their cartoons with lots of big themes and issues.
Following in the footsteps of these aforementioned great French animated films comes Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar’s exceptional The Rabbi’s Cat, based on Sfar’s graphic novel series of the same name. Although the animation is a bit crude and may take a short time to get used to, the film, itself, is whip-smart, exciting, very funny and quite thought-provoking. Any qualms I had were pretty much banished by the ten-minute mark.
Combining together several different volumes of the graphic novel, The Rabbi’s Cat takes place in 1920s Algeria and details the adventures of Rabbi Abraham Sfar, his beautiful daughter Zlabya and their mischievous cat, who has recently gained the ability to talk after eating a loud-mouthed parrot. In order to continue spending time with Zlabya, the cat decides to convert to Judaism, a plan that causes no amount of headaches for the Rabbi and his aged Master, a humorless and severe Rabbi who thinks Sfar doesn’t take his job quite seriously enough. Along the way, the group meets a Russian Jew who’s fled religious persecution in his country (his story, told through animated watercolors, is quite beautiful) and is searching for a fabled lost Jewish city in Ethiopia; Sfar’s cousin, a Muslim sheikh and his philosophical donkey; an insane Russian millionaire; a beautiful, dark-skinned bartender; a racist American “artist”; and a tribe of mysterious, violent desert nomads.
As is the case with many French animated features, there is quite a lot going on in The Rabbi’s Cat. We get plenty of intense religious discussions, my favorite being the debate that the cat and donkey get into over the relative merits of both Islam and Judaism. There are debates on the validity of religious “truth” (when the Rabbi tries to teach the cat about Adam and Eve, he scoffs and writes them off as “symbols’); racism (the American artist tries to explain eugenics to the Russian Jew and it doesn’t go over well; the Rabbi is kicked out of a little outdoor cafe, since the proprietor doesn’t “serve Jews…or Arabs.”); the hardship inflicted on Jews in 1920s-era Russia (the crazy millionaire states that “A Jew is not a Russian. A Russian, you challenge to a duel. A Jew, you burn” with a completely maniacal glint in his eye) and the perceived/real differences between Islam and Judaism.
If this seems like quite a bit to pack into a film that runs less than two hours, you’re absolutely correct. At times, The Rabbi’s Cat feels fit to bursting with content and it isn’t until we settle into the film’s main storyline (the hunt for the lost Jewish city) that things seem to settle down a bit. Most of the disparate elements fit together beautifully but a few of them, including an appearance by a lunk-headed adventurer and his stupid dog that are clearly supposed to be Tin Tin and Snowy, feel forced and a little out-of-place. The ending also seems a bit abrupt, as if they just pulled the plug rather than wound the proceedings down in a more natural way.
Nonetheless, The Rabbi’s Cat is, essentially, one delight after another. Once one gets used to the animation style, the film has a natural breath and flow that is extremely easy to watch. The voice acting, especially from Rabbi Sfar and the cat, is top-notch and the film is laugh-out-loud funny at times: my favorite line has to be the one where Rabbi Sfar brings the Russian millionaire back to his house, after previously finding the Russian Jew hiding in a box of Talmuds. The Rabbi’s cynical master raises one eyebrow and asks, “What’s this?” After the Rabbi responds with, “A Russian,” the Master retorts with, “What, you collect them?” Classic.
In the end, The Rabbi’s Cat is a pretty exceptional film. More than anything, it’s a film that constantly surprises, whether with the extremely genuine pathos of the painter or the surprising and shocking violence that pops up when the group visits the nomads. Any film that’s willing to throw not one but multiple weighty philosophical and religious discussions into the mix, while still finding time to develop the sweetly gentle courtship between the bartender and Russian Jew, is pretty alright in my book. There were even a few times where the film reminded me fondly of Terry Gilliam’s classic The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which, if you know anything about me, is pretty much the highest praise I can give it.