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The Rabbi’s Cat
January 20, 2013

The Rabbi’s Cat, which did not get nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar this year (since all the slots were taken by bigger-budget, non-foreign cartoons), will be out on Blu-ray later this spring. It’s also playing a few selected theaters in the U.S. starting this month. In the meantime, I got a chance to check out a screener. Here’s a subtitled trailer:

Like the trailer, the movie is told in French with English subtitles. The first thing I noticed was how like Joann Sfar’s graphic novel it looked. Sfar co-directed with Antoine Delesvaux (in his first film as director).

The detail in the backgrounds is impressive, with what resembles pen-and-ink crosshatching used to emphasize the drawn look of the cobblestones of 1930s Algiers. For me, the design of the title character took a bit to get used to. (Sometimes, the sleek grey beast looks more like a rat than a cat, with that weirdly elongated face.) But the bright colors are eye-catching and provide a sense of warmth.

The cat (François Morel) gains the ability to speak when he eats a pet parrot. He actually belongs to Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter (Hafsia Herzi), but once he starts talking, he’s not considered a fit companion for her. He debates philosophy and religion instead with the rabbi (Maurice Bénichou). The cat takes a modern, scientific view, while the rabbi is more literally conservative when reading scripture.

The Rabbi's Cat and Zlabya

The cat demands a bar mitzvah so he can be a proper Jew. He misses his mistress and wants to be allowed to see her again. He’s also not above untruths to make his point, which makes debates over the nature of God the more interesting. The rabbi becomes discouraged when forced to take a test in French to hold his role of minister to Arabic Jews.

There are odd, impressionist musical and dream sequences, done in different animation styles. There are questions of faith and the values of rules to determine good behavior. Later, a couple of crazy Russians appear, and they all set out across Africa on a quest to Ethiopia. There’s a cameo by a young reporter in the Belgian Congo and his white dog.

The Rabbi's Cat on a journey

Religious debates about the nature of God and the value of art carry the film while the beautifully animated visuals show us adventure in another country and another time. I enjoyed watching it, and even though subtitles make me sleepy, it was just right to hear the movie in another language. It constantly reminded me of the struggle of being a visitor in another land, trying to maintain belief in the face of other cultures and what we could learn from them.

If you’d like to learn more about the plot and hear more praise for the film, see Matt Brady’s review.

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