By Don Simpson | May 7, 2013
Directors: Antoine Delesvaux, Joann Sfar
Writers: Joann Sfar (comic book series, screenplay), Sandrina Jardel (screenplay)
Starring: Maurice Bénichou, François Morel, Hafsia Herzi, Mohamed Fellag, Mathieu Amalric, François Damiens, Karina Testa, Eric Elmosnino, Daniel Cohen, Joann Sfar, Alice Houri, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Pascal N’Zonzi, Wojtek Pszoniak, Sava Lolov
Whether or not Rabbi Sfar’s cat (voice: François Morel) eats the Rabbi Sfar’s parrot is totally up to you to decide. Regardless, that event seems to provide the titular feline with the ability to talk like a human. The cat’s speech is much more than just mere parroting though, he can converse fluently with any human (or animal) as long as they are willing to listen to him. Now that the cat is able to speak, he thinks it is due time to celebrate his bar mitzvah. Why? Because the cat wants the reluctant Rabbi Sfar (voice: Maurice Bénichou) to allow him to snuggle up with his beautiful daughter, Zlabya (voice: Hafsia Herzi) — whom the cat considers to be his mistress. Of course that is not a convincing enough reason for Rabbi Sfar, especially considering the cat’s rapid fire criticisms of Judaism.
Being that Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat is a combination of three issues of Joann Sfar’s source comic book series, the narrative quickly progresses to the next tale — a much anticipated visit from one of Rabbi Sfar’s cousins, Malka of the Lions (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). Along with Malka comes a crate full of books from Russia; also inside the crate is a smuggled Russian painter (Sava Lova) who’s goal is to travel to a mysterious “Jerusalem in Africa” which is hidden somewhere deep in Ethiopia. The promise of a secret society in which Jews of all colors peacefully coexist appeals to Rabbi Sfar and his Sufi cousin, Mohammed Sfar (Fellag Sheik). They bring a perpetually inebriated reporter (Francois Damiens) along on their journey because seems to be the only person in Algiers who can speak both Russian and French. (Don’t fret, there is a clever explanation as to why the cat cannot serve as translator.) All the while, Malka must stay in Algiers to watch over Rabbi Sfar’s household.
The old-fashioned style of animation utilized throughout The Rabbi’s Cat is reminiscent of the golden age of Warner Bros. Cartoons. The ornate details of the painterly artwork is utterly mesmerizing, but the narrative is chock full of substance as well. The seemingly seamless blending of multiple stories conjures up the surrealist narrative structure of The Simpsons and by the conclusion of The Rabbi’s Cat it is impossible to comprehend how this complex saga could have possibly started with a cat’s simple jealousy of a parrot.
The Rabbi’s Cat is one of those animated films that seems on the surface like a children’s film, but is saturated with profound philosophical and theological statements. Not only do Delesvaux and Sfar suggest the need for compromise and solidarity among spiritual people, but they also stress the importance of engaging and questioning the contents of scripture. Set in 1930s Algiers, this seems to be the last bastion of religious peace where Jews, Muslims, Sufis and Catholics could coexist as neighbors and friends. The Rabbi’s Cat shows how these four very similar religions once worked together for the common good; their respect for each other’s scriptures being the most important bond. The only prejudice that does exist is related to ethnicity rather than religion — the French are wary of the Jews, while the Jews do not trust the Russians. This all takes place shortly before the beginning of World War II, when racial and religious discrimination became the norm rather than the exception. The Rabbi’s Cat is an intelligent reminder of the way things used to — and should still — be.