Film Review: The Rabbi's CatColorful cat leaps to the screen, though it’s held down by a jumbled narrative.
France’s favorite kosher kitty gets a big-screen 3D grooming in The Rabbi’s Cat, author and co-director Joann Sfar’s adaptation of his highly successful comic-book series. Though this gorgeously animated affair showcases the artist’s freewheeling style and colorful arabesque imagery, its rambling episodic structure is not quite the cat’s meow, even if it remains a thoroughly enjoyable take on Judaism in early 20th-century North Africa.
First published in 2002, the five-part Cat became a major hit in France, where the prolific Sfar had already made a name for himself writing and inking hundreds of successful titles (Petit Vampire, Pascin, Les Carnets), which run the gamut from kids’ fantasy to adult-targeted and autobiographical fare.
Based on stories from three of the volumes, the script (co-written with Sfar’s partner, Sandrina Jardel) lumps together lots of action in a not entirely compact 90 minutes, suffering in the long run from too many characters and scenarios, which may have been better stretched into a full-length cartoon series. If anything, the clever and fresh approach of the film’s opening reels (based on Volume One) could have served as a backbone for the entire movie, for it’s here that Sfar’s imaginative humor and provocative questioning of religious traditions are best on display.
A vibrant chase set in a beautifully portrayed Algiers circa 1920 introduces us to the scrappy, quick-witted cat (François Morel), and then to his owners, a local rabbi, Sfar, (Maurice Benichou) and his voluptuous, earthy daughter, Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi). Although the kitty would like nothing more than to nestle himself in Zlabya’s bosom all day long, he makes the mistake of talking to Sfar, revealing that he not only has the gift of speech, but that he’s a sarcastic loudmouth who has the audacity to ask the rabbi for a bar mitzvah.
Thus begins a chain of adventures which, at least early on, manage to address one of author Sfar’s favorite themes: What does it mean to be Jewish, and how does that identity face up to both Hebrew scripture and the social-political issues associated with Judaism as a whole? (The film’s third part, based on the volume entitled L’Exode, tackles the Jewish-Arab conflict via a mix of violent bloodletting and unexpected camaraderie.)
But such questions, though intelligently raised from the start, eventually go unanswered amid a slew additional plots and parts, which include a brawny, over-aged lion tamer (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), a dreamy Russian painter (Sava Lolov), and one sequence that digresses into a parody of comic-strip legend Tintin’s excursion into Sub-Saharan Africa, Belgian accents included.
Despite the overstuffed storytelling, Sfar and co-director Antoine Delesvaux provide an incredible palette of visuals culled from the style Sfar originally created on paper: a loose and organic line filled with layers of color reminiscent of Chagall; figures marked by excessive traits (giant ears and noses) and expressive, beady eyes; and backgrounds crammed with sprawling detail, especially in the powerful Algerian city and landscapes, which manage to take on a life of their own.
Although the 3D boost adds little to what’s essentially old-fashioned 2D animation, it makes some of the film’s more vivid moments stand out, with certain scenes (including a disturbing “Itchy & Scratchy”-like recreation of a Russian pogrom) remaining embedded in one’s memory.
While the end result is somewhat chaotic, it proves that Sfar can make the jump from page to screen in ways that are both compelling and personal. Like fellow cartoonists Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Riad Sattouf (The French Kissers)—all three are linked through the independent publishing house L’Association—he’s part of a recent wave of French filmmakers whose roots lie in the comic-book store rather than the cinematheque, offering up a new form of auteurism that demands attention.
—The Hollywood Reporter