The Rabbi’s Cat (2011) – reviewed by George

This French film features hand-drawn animation augmented and assisted by CGI, and is in French with English subtitles. Normally I would think this fine, but the artwork is so gorgeous – the story takes place first in the Jewish community of Algiers and the backgrounds are Middle Eastern designs on walls and streets – that it was hard to drag my eyes away to read captions. The musical score, by Olivier Daviaud,  is also largely Middle Eastern and quite wonderful, especially the music behind the opening credits..
But I digress (not about Olivier, but about the captions). Rabbi Sfar has an Abyssinian cat, who has not been named. The cat acts as narrator, “Jews aren’t keen on dogs. Dogs bite you or chase you. Jews have been barked at for so long, they prefer cats.” And “My master is Rabbi Sfar. I don’t have a name. Throughout Algiers I am known as the Rabbi’s cat. Zlabya is my mistress. Her name is like a honey of pastry.”  Zlabya is the love of this cat’s eye, also the rabbi’s daughter. Then one day the cat has had it with the rabbi’s parrot constantly saying, “Zlabya, I love you.” So he attacks out of jealousy, and when accused by the rabbi of murder, finds that after eating a parrot he can speak to defend himself. Turns out he can also read. He learned with Zlabya, but because he could only mew, no one ever knew before.
Now that he can speak, he can argue, and he wants his bar mitzvah. He also argues with an older rabbi, the Master of his Master, and in an amusing dialogue proves himself quicker and cleverer than the old man. Of course quick and clever may not be particularly good traits, eh? The bar mitzvah is refused, but the two rabbis agree to teach the cat lessons in Judaism.
Please understand that, despite the presence of the older Master, Rabbi Sfar is the “official” rabbi of his congregation. Then he receives a letter from Paris telling him that to become the official official rabbi, he must pass a test in taking dictation in French. The cat says, “Master, we needn’t respect the laws of the mad. As a rabbi you pray in Hebrew for Arab-speaking Jews, and these madmen want you to write in French!”
Rabbi Sfar tries to get coffee at one of the outside tables of a cafe, and is told by the waiter, “We don’t serve Jews or Arabs here.”  My question is: In Algeria who does that leave to serve? French tourists perhaps? Then I read that the setting is the twenties (did not pick that up from the film – dropped the ball), so the number of French clientele would be large enough for the proprietor to justify his prejudice.
Anyway many more adventures await. A relative arrives, Lion Malka, who shows up with his pet lion. An insane man agrees to drive Rabbi Sfar, Lion Malka, and a Russian Jew who has been smuggled to Algeria in a crate of Hebrew prayer books (to escape a pogrom), deep into the African continent in search of the children of Solomon and Sheba, a tribe of black Jews.
The movie is beautiful, funny, exciting, and informative. It was written by Sandrina Jardel from the graphic novels of Joann Sfar, and was directed by Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar. The voice cast includes: Maurice Benichou as Rabbi Sfar, Francois Morel as the cat, Hafsia Herzi as Zlabya, Daniel Cohen as the old rabbi, and Jean-Pierre Kalfon as Lion Malka. I apologize for not listing more actors, but in my ignorance of the language I had problems with the credits, which of course are in French,

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