The Rabbi's Cat adapts volumes 1, 2, and 5 of Sfar's graphic novel series. Set in 1930s Algeria, then part of France, it is a tale that examines the troublesome issue of religious conflict and the search for understanding in a world that seems hostile to the faithful. The titular cat, who gains the ability to speak when he eats the family parrot, is a fascinating character. His first words are a lie (he did not eat the parrot, thank you very much!) and his questioning of whether or not his new-found self-consciousness and verbosity makes him a potential Jew greatly vexes Rabbi Sfar. The first half of the movie is devoted to exploring the fragile relationship between religion and science, as the more skeptical cat questions the validity of the Talmud even as he seeks a place among the local Algerian Jews. Easily this could devolve into a trite, shallow exploration of faith, but Sfar is playing a deeper game here, as a visit to Rabbi Sfar's old teacher shows an uglier side to this conflict.
Intermixed among this are the relationships between the widowed Rabbi Sfar and his only daughter, Zlabya, and her love for the amusing, witty, and occasionally devious cat. These scenes are animated brilliantly, as Sfar utilizes a combination of traditional ink animation and computers to create a very vivid, organic interplay of scene and people. The characters, especially the cat and Zlabya, move in an entrancing fashion, due in part to motion-capture technology being utilized to create a framework for the animation clips. Although I only saw this in 2D on the screener DVD provided to me by the American distributors, GKIDS, The Rabbi's Cat was designed with 3D in mind and in places in the film, it is easy to imagine that the layered effect, combined with very vivid colors, would likely make for a good 3D viewing experience (in 2D, it is one of the most colorful animated films I have ever seen).
Yet visuals can carry a movie only so far, as there needs to be a strong narrative to engage the viewer's interest for the entire 89 minutes. Unfortunately, there were a few places where the narrative seemed to falter for a few minutes, namely in the scenes setting up the transition from the initial focus on the cat, rabbi, and daughter toward an African adventure (a subplot adapted from the fifth graphic novel volume). The scene introducing the Russian Jewish painter and his mission to find a fabled African Jewish community, a sort of mystical Jerusalem, is choppy and there is the sense that things are rushed too much; an extra five minutes or so developing the transition scene would have made the connection between the two halves of the movie much stronger.
Other reviewers have remarked about how the second half of The Rabbi's Cat fails to live up to the promise of the first half, as the conclusion in particular comes under scrutiny. At first glance, there is something to this, as the scenes involving the travel across the Sahara toward the "lost city" contain certain references to previous Francophone comics/colonial themes (such as the appearance of Tintin characters in a fashion that satirizes the dodgy racial depictions in that famous comics) that may be lost upon American audiences. Yet there is an underlying unity of theme that pervades these scenes that tells a larger story about ourselves and our prejudices than what first appears to be the case. If anything, Sfar may be a bit too subtle in places, at least for particular American audiences who prefer more explicit development of anti-racism/religious tolerance themes. Take for instance these three images from a scene roughly 2/3 into the movie that I took with my phone's camera:
Here the cat is voicing a question that takes in such matters as religious belief and cultural identity and he makes even deeper connections between the human longing to emulate and to control nature and the means by which this longing is displayed in our symbols and actions. Although he is quieter here in the second half compared to the first, the cat is still a voice of an outside observer, questioning just why we act in certain ways to particular beliefs. This is especially seen toward the movie's end, as the travelers near their goal, only to discover that the goalposts have shifted. It is not a comforting end, certainly not one with a nice, simple conclusion that is a Hollywood standard, but it fits with the issues that Sfar wanted to explore here.
The Rabbi's Cat is not a perfect movie, but despite its flaws in transitioning between key scenes, it is certainly a work that will linger in the viewer's mind longer than the vast majority of recent cinema releases. The combination of detailed and excellently-rendered scenes and complex characters with a movie that refuses to have clear-cut answers to the questions it raises may make this a movie that will not appeal to those who prefer to have "light" entertainment, but for those who are willing to consider the themes that Sfar's characters raise, The Rabbi's Cat will be one of the better movies, domestic as well as foreign, released recently in the US. Highly recommended.