‘Rabbi’s Cat’ more philosophical than cute

Director Joann Sfar is clearly on the rise and if you’re a Francophile, you’ll want to see this award-winning animated movie, “Rabbi’s Cat.” Don’t let the words cat and animation scare you off; this isn’t a cutesy movie about a talking cat, but a meditation on Algeria and the French colonialism there during the 1920s and a risky road trip that the cat takes with his master.

Joann here is a French name, equivalent to John and, if it matters, Sfar is a man. The 41-year-old Nice (France) born comic book creator and film director is Jewish–Ashkenazi on his mother’s side and Sephradic on his father’s.

“Rabbi’s Cat” isn’t Sfar’s first feature; he wrote and directed a biopic about a French songwriter and singer, Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), “Gainsbourg: Une Vie Heroique.” That 2010 movie was based on a graphic novel by Sfar and received 3 César Awards (Best Actor for Eric Elmsonino as Gainsbourg, Best Debut for Sfar and Best Sound). “Rabbi’s Cat” was also based on Sfar’s graphic novel, “Le Chat du Rabbin” and the animated feature won the Annecy Crystal award for Best Feature at the International Animated Film Festival and the Best Animated Feature at the César Awards.

What could be more auteur for animated features than the graphic novel writer directing his own features?

Unlike DreamWorks “Puss in Boots” which is meant for kids and their parents in tow and works into a frenzy of song, dance and wacky romance,  the “Rabbi’s Cat” is episodic in nature and meant for adults with enough gentle humor to amuse thoughtful children. The detailed hand-drawn animation makes you appreciate the quality of an ink drawn line.

The titular cat begins by explaining why Jewish people prefer cats over dogs, at least, he adds, according to his owner, the rabbi. The cat (François Morel) has a life of his own, causing trouble in town by stealing fish, but he’s not exactly the king cat of the town. His fish is stolen from him and in a way, this almost seems as a metaphor for Algeria under the French as we see the rabbi (Maurice Bénichou) refused service as a restaurant.

Under the French colonialism, the Jews are under constraints similar to the Muslims: They are Algerian, but second class citizens. Yet politics isn’t the main issue of the movie. In our first adventure, the cat learns to speak after eating a talking parrot. Jealousy over his mistress’ affections may have been the motivation because the cat soon declares his desire to become a Jew–mostly due to his possessiveness toward Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi), the rabbi’s daughter.

The voluptuous Zlabya has her eyes on a Russian stranger, an artist (Sava Lolov), but he will soon be whisked away onto a strange road trip as he seeks black Jews, the descendants of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. A dissolute Russian adventurer (Wojciech Pszoniak) will make this journey possible by providing a car so the cat, the artist, the rabbi and his friend Sfar with Sfar’s donkey in tow, will set off and not all of them will return.

“Rabbi’s Cat” is a different view of European colonialism with our heroes being a cat and his man. The movie drifts into fantasy and doesn’t take sides between the Algerians and the French or the Muslims and the Jews. It’s a pleasant journey, but not without moments of imminent threat before the happy ending.

In French with English subtitles.


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