“The Rabbi’s Cat”
A Cat… Metaphorically
“The Rabbi’s Cat” is a charming French animated film that makes the point early on that Jews don’t like dogs but we understand that the feline who says this is actually speaking more or less metaphorically. The cat admits that his owner has told him that Jews prefer cats because collectively they as a people they have been “barked at” by so many for too long. “The Rabbi’s Cat” comes from the mind of Joann Sfar (a male), a French comic book author . Many of Sfar’s literary works exploit his Jewish heritage, and in the case of Sfar, it’s a rather interesting one. One of Sfar’s parents is an Ashkenazi Jew while the other is a Sephardic Jew. Ashkenazi Jews tend to come from Eastern Europe (though many ultimately settled in Germany), while Sephardic Jews tend to come from Spain, Portugal and Northern Africa. The two “subgroups” have radically different cultures, worship styles, music (Sephardic music is incredibly evocative), and even languages (Sephardim tend to speak a highly distinctive tongue known as Ladino, which is a heady brew of Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish and even other elements like French.)
Perhaps because of dialectic between Sfar’s Ashkenazi and Sephardic roots, the issue of Jewish identity is the basic theme of “The Rabbi’s Cat” especially after the cat swallows the rabbi’s parrot and magically becomes able to talk. Once the cat (Francois Morel) is able to actually communicate with the humans around him, he starts asking a lot of impertinent questions, like whether he is Jewish simply because his owners are. While the rabbi assures him he is (despite the absence of having been circumcised), the cat decides he wants to have a Bar Mitzvah just to make everything official. That in turn causes a number of problems for the rabbi, who turns to his rabbi for counsel.
Whether or not Rabbi Sfar’s cat eats the Rabbi Sfar’s parrot is totally up to each viewer to decide. Regardless, that event seems to provide the cat with the ability to talk like a human. However what the cat has to say is s much more than just parroting though, he is able converse fluently with any human (or animal) as long as they are willing to listen to him. Now that the cat is able to speak, he thinks it is due time to celebrate his bar mitzvah for his own ulterior motive— wants Rabbi Sfar (Maurice Bénichou) to allow him to snuggle up with his beautiful daughter, Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi) — whom the cat considers to be his mistress. Of course that is not a convincing enough reason for Rabbi Sfar, especially considering the cat’s many rapid fire criticisms of Judaism.
An anticipated visit comes from one of Rabbi Sfar’s cousins, Malka of the Lions (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). Along with Malka comes a crate full of books from Russia and inside the crate is a smuggled Russian painter (Sava Lova) who’s goal is to travel to a place called “Jerusalem in Africa” which is hidden somewhere deep in Ethiopia. Then there is the situation of the promise of a secret society in which Jews of all colors peacefully coexist and this appeals to Rabbi Sfar and his Sufi cousin, Mohammed Sfar (Fellag Sheik). The old-fashioned style of animation utilized throughout film is reminiscent of the golden age of Warner Brothers cartoons. The ornate details of the artwork is mesmerizing and the narrative is full of substance as well.
This is one of those animated films that seems on the surface like a children’s film, but is saturated with profound philosophical and theological statements. There is a strong suggestion about the need for compromise and solidarity among spiritual people, but it also stresses the importance of engaging and questioning the contents of scripture. Set in 1930s Algiers, we see there seems to be religious peace where Jews, Muslims, Sufis and Catholics could coexist as neighbors and friends. We see how these four very similar religions once worked together for the common good through their respect for each other’s scriptures. There does seem, however, to be prejudice that is related to ethnicity rather than religion — the French are wary of the Jews, while the Jews do not trust the Russians. The story This all takes place shortly before the beginning of World War II, when racial and religious discrimination became the norm rather than the exception and we are reminded of the way things used to and should still be today.