The titular feline of the French animated feature The Rabbi’s Cat suddenly begins to talk after he swallows his owner’s parrot. What does he do with his new power? Well, he engages in theological disputes with his master, a rabbi, and asks to be bar mitzvahed. What else?
These wacky events, plus the cat’s penchant for delivering pointed one-liners, make for a promising start to the movie, which uses several storylines from a series of graphic novels by co-director Joann Sfar (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life). The drawing style is appealing and the humor, which works more often than not, is compatible with the film’s more serious concern, to offer a message of respect for religious and cultural diversity.
The setting is the multiethnic Algeria of the 1920s. Our nameless hero (voiced by Franois Morel) wonders if he is Jewish, and his master (Maurice Bnichou) begins to give him lessons from the Torah. Eventually they visit the rabbi’s own formidable rabbi, whom the cat manages to enrage with his sharp tongue. Though a controversialist at heart, this feline is fond of comforts and would just as soon stay home and enjoy the caresses of the rabbi’s buxom daughter (Hafsia Herzi).
Eventually the film, which is extremely episodic, turns into a road movie, as the cat, the rabbi and several others, including a Russian Jew (Sava Lolov) who has fled a pogrom, undertake a cross-continent car trip to find the Jerusalem of Africa, a city in Ethiopia where blacks and Jews coexist. Among their adventures is an encounter with a wandering Arab tribe and its prince (Mathieu Amalric), which ends in bloodshed.
There are enjoyable scenes throughout, though they can’t overcome the film’s air of didacticism. Directors Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux give a nod to the spirit of anarchy and rebellion by offering an insouciant hero, but it’s not enough. The film insists on its nonchallenging message of tolerance to the extent that viewers may feel browbeaten.
Voices: Mathieu Amalric, Francois Damiens, Hafzia Herzi.
Directors: Antoine Delesvaux, Joann Sfar.
Screenwriters: Sandrina Jardel, Joann Sfar.
Producers: Antoine Delesvaux, Clement Oubrerie, Joann Sfar.
A GKids release. Running time: 89 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Plays today-Sunday in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores.April 18