I can’t help but feel that “The Rabbi’s Cat” will fare best if seen by, and only by, faithful followers of the graphic novels on which they’re based and of their creator, French cartoonist Joann Sfar. Those who haven’t read the novels are far less likely to appreciate the jarring combination of crude animation and religious discourse, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to say how faithful or unfaithful the film is to its source material. Those who haven’t even heard of Sfar cannot be expected to know anything about his heritage, which factors prominently in the story. I freely admit that I haven’t so much as glanced at a single panel of the comics, and that prior to seeing this film, the name Joann Sfar was completely unknown to me. Although I firmly believe that film adaptations should never, ever be compared to their written sources, I’m still forced to concede that I may not be the right person to review this movie.
I say that because the film was obviously intended to appeal to those intimately familiar with Sfar’s style, a peculiar blend of casual hand-drawn lines, storylines that are apt to meander, and wordy conversations with religious, cultural, and historic slants. Those who aren’t familiar with it may find it very unappealing. This is especially true of the animation itself, the ugliest I’ve seen outside of an anime film. There’s nothing visually magnetic about it – save, perhaps, for its presentation in 3D, which has the most intriguing effect on hand-drawn cel animation. I first noticed this a year ago, when Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” was rereleased in 3D. Unlike a computer generated cartoon, in which the characters and environments are intended to convey the illusion of dimension, cel animation begins life as a series of flat paintings; when converted to 3D, each painted layer takes on the appearance of a theater flat, which are placed at specific distances towards or away from the camera. It gives the film the feeling of a living storybook.
It’s an effective technique, but it doesn’t amount to anything much when applied to a story too loosely structured and didactic for most audiences. Sfar drew inspiration from his own family history and Jewish heritage, and although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, it would have been nice if he had been able to make his various plot threads intertwine into a cohesive whole. It takes place in Algeria sometime during the early part of the twentieth century, perhaps the 1920s or ‘30s. We meet Rabbi Abraham Sfar (voiced by Maurice Bénichou), a devout man who frets over a consistory exam he must take if he wants to retain his title. We also meet his cat, who isn’t given a name (voiced by François Morel); he will serve as the film’s narrator, and after eating the Rabbi’s parrot, he will miraculously gain the ability to speak.
Unfortunately, the rules under which he can and cannot speak are so random and confusing, it’s as if Sfar (the author) made them up as he went along. Yes, the cat can speak after eating the parrot, but as soon as he utters the word “Adonai,” which is one of the many Hebrew names for God and is typically reserved only for prayer, his newfound ability suddenly disappears. At that point, the Rabbi can only make out the sounds of meowing. To other animals, however, he can still speak in complete sentences. Most baffling of all is a Russian painter (voiced by Sava Lolov), who was shipped to the Rabbi unconscious inside a crate full of Russian novels; for reasons never given, the cat is able to communicate with the Russian, who himself initially cannot speak French. Only after the cat is stung by a scorpion and then revived is he once again able to communicate with the Rabbi.
There are several layers to the plot, although I’m hard pressed to say that they’re allowed to develop into anything. The cat lusts after the Rabbi’s daughter, Zlabya (voiced by Hafsia Herzi), whom he calls his mistress; although it’s fairly well established that the cat is an atheist, he wants to have a bar mitzvah in order to be with her. Meanwhile, the Russian painter, who escaped his village as it was being pillaged and burned by cossacks, is on a mission to travel to Ethiopia and find the Jerusalem of Africa. The Rabbi and the cat join him, as does an expatriate Russian with a death wish named Vastenov (voiced by Wojciech Pszoniak). They meet with the Rabbi’s cousin, a Muslim sheik named Mohammed (voiced by Fellag). While on this journey, the Russian will instantaneously fall in love with an unnamed African waitress (voiced by Marguerite Abouet), formerly a slave.
Throughout the entire film, there will be many, many esoteric conversations that address faith, culture, and history. Most are simply wordy, but one in particular will end with two very gruesome deaths. I have no doubt all this will be greatly appreciated by Sfar’s dedicated readers. For me, the verbal and visual experiences got very old very quickly. I think part of the problem is that “The Rabbi’s Cat” is less like a complete narrative and more like a random series of vignettes, none of which are resolved in a satisfactory way. This is especially true of the ending – and by “ending,” I mean only that the movie is playing one minute and the credits are rolling the next. There’s no sense that we’ve arrived at a structural or emotional conclusion. I’ve repeatedly made known my disdain for films that appeal only to a fanbase instead of general audiences; although there’s nothing especially harmful about this movie, it’s obvious that Sfar made that very mistake.