Big screen animation isn’t just for blockbusters, at least not lately. A more offbeat contingent of graphic comic artists have been elbowing their way into the theaters lately, and with much more on their mind than the usual technical bells and whistles of those essentially big studio razzle dazzle light shows and little else.
And the latest entry in that David and Goliath duel at in theaters is French graphic artist Joann Sfar’s (Gainsbourg) bestseller page to screen comics’ series, The Rabbi’s Cat. And though released by the children’s movie distributor GKIDS, the surreal historical fantasy is anything but.
Yet another entry into the vast body of work, whether fiction or documentary, seeking to make sense out of religious conflicts in the Middle East, The Rabbi’s Cat is inventive in both utilizing comically infused satire spotlighting the distant past rather than the present or future, by delving into a period during the early 20th century in the Middle East. And perhaps looking back at a time of relative peace if not actual harmony between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, in a search for potential solutions in the turbulent here and now since then.
As self-explanatory as can be but with lots of surprise mischief on its mind as well, The Rabbi’s Cat plays out in French occupied Algiers back then. As the somewhat despondent widowed Rabbi Sfar roams about the city with his unnamed and rather undisciplined feline perched on his shoulder, as goats inexplicably fall from trees.
The relative calm within Sfar’s eccentric home, which includes his seductive divan-potato adult daughter Zlabya, is disturbed one day when the cat devours the household pet parrot and begins to talk – presumably in parrot-ese. Which afflicts the decidedly brainy creature with a peculiar identity crisis, demanding answers as to whether he’s a Jew or not – even if he isn’t circumcised – and insisting he be entitled to a Bar Mitzvah. As for the perplexed rabbi, he turns to religious texts where any insights to this dilemma are in short supply, while his own rabbi advises to simply drown the presumptuous pet.
The Rabbi’s Cat is great theological and philosophical fun as human and animal befuddled aspiring sages’ alike search for elusive enlightenment as to the meaning of life. But the story detours into all sorts of strange silliness when a couple of Russians turn up in Algeria from the Soviet Union out of practically nowhere – including a blustery homicidal Czarist and a young Jewish painter stowaway. Followed by the entire incidental entourage heading off to Africa in search of the original Black Jews.
Consistently salvaging the increasingly superficial proceedings along the way however, is the remarkable gift the filmmaker projects on to the screen of radiant artistry in motion that captures the potent visuals of a disappeared time. Nearly but not quite, giving all the babbling when not racially offensive ideological idiocy in between, a pass.