The rabbi’s cat is a scrawny, grey creature who spends his time slinking around the docks of pre-WWII Algieria, fighting the other toms for fish heads, and dozing off in the lap of his master’s daughter. He’s as insular and selfish as you would expect a cat to be. One day in a fit of pique, when the rabbi’s back is turned, he devours the rabbi’s mouthy pet parakeet. This does more than satiate his hunger: it gives the cat the power of speech, and the very first thing he does is flat-out deny he ate a parakeet. After all, wouldn’t one of the hallmarks of sentience be the ability to lie?
This is a grandly funny scene, and it sets the tone for how The Rabbi’s Cat is not some dumb film where a talking cat is milked for jokes about how idiotic everyone else is. It’s a mix of smart, adult animated productions like Persepolis or The Triplets of Belleville, with the fantasy-mythology undertones of one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories. Then again, those were the same aromas also exuded by Joann Sfar’s graphic novels that were the source of this film — doubly so since Sfar himself storyboarded and oversaw the production. Animation for thinking adults seems to come from two places, Japan and France, but France gets even less attention for such work than Japan does, and given how fresh and original this film is, that’s a shame.
After acquiring the power of speech, the rabbi's cat becomes
a kind of Talmudic devil's advocate to his master.
If The Rabbi’s Cat is about anything, it’s about what it means to sport a given label — whether that label is “animal”, “human”, “Jew”, “gentile”, or what have you. Can the cat receive a bar mitzvah, for instance, even if (or especially if) he himself asks for one? The rabbi doesn’t believe so, and the idea of giving a talking cat a bar mitzvah is a theological complication he doesn’t need in his life right now. He’s attempting to pass a French-language certification exam which has been levied on him from the rabbinate in France, and even with the cat’s help he’s sinking into a mire of doubt and disbelief.
The only person in the world the cat’s closer to than his master the rabbi is his daughter, Zlabya. Her carefree existence mostly consists of lazing around with friends or napping with the cat at her feet, staying as far from God as her father tries to approach Him. The fact that her cat can talk back to her doesn’t so much complicate this (or challenge her view of the world, really) as it simply gives her another reason to savor what she has. Then the cat tries to ask a favor of God to help the rabbi pass his French exam, and gets his wish … at the cost of losing his voice once again. If there is a God, clearly He has either a perverse sense of humor or an exacting sense of justice.
Many dizzying detours ensue, including the addition of a Russian soldier-turned-painter,
and a quest to find the lost tribes of Israel.
If my description of the film makes it sound somewhat plotless and freeform, it is, but not in the sense that the film never seems to know where it’s going. The Rabbi’s Cat doesn’t have the same merciless adherence to the act-and-beat structure that has infected modern filmmaking. Such frameworks bestow discipline with one hand but take away just as many things with the other, which explains why so many movies seem unpleasantly alike these days. By contrast, Cat is unpredictable and lively, and loaded with something else missing from many current films, both animated and live-action: wit.
I suspect those reared on tamer movies, animated or live action, are going to find their heads spinning by the last third or so of the film, given how far the film has strayed from its original premise and ended up in some very strange territory. By then a stowaway Russian soldier has come into the company of the rabbi and his cohorts, a journey to find the source of Judaism has been undertaken, duels have been fought, portraits painted, love fallen into and out of again, and the cat has found himself at the mercy of one of the lost tribes of Israel. But it’s never boring, and when it was all over I admired the movie for not once taking the easy way through any of its convolutions.
Animation makes it easier to create the kinds of flights of fancy that a live-action movie would struggle with.
The best movies lend themselves to being savored on multiple levels. The Rabbi’s Cat works as a surreal fantasy, but also as a hint as to how animation can be used to recreate a long-gone setting by way of suggestion and inference. A live-action version of this project would have been far more expensive, both for the sake of recreating the time and place but also because of what it would take to convincingly realize the cat’s antics. Maybe a live-action version would have been beside the point as well, since so much of what happens works because we’re seeing it as animation. The Rabbi’s Cat is a great example of how our disbelief in multiple realms — physical and spiritual — can be suspended that much more easily in some art forms.