There are very, very few films featuring humorous depictions of early 20th-century pogroms. In fact, after considerable effort, I can think of only one: The Rabbi’s Cat, a witty, thoughtful French animated feature opening this Friday, Jan. 18 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas. [Update, 1:25 p.m.: The movie has been rescheduled since press time and is now due to open at the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Thank you reader Ed Erwin for the tip, and apologies for any inconvenience.]
Based on a series of graphic novels by writer-director Joann Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat is set in 1930s Algiers, where Rabbi Abraham (a fictional representation of the filmmaker’s Sephardic ancestors) lives a quiet life with his daughter Zlabya, their annoying green parrot, and a grey tomcat who enjoys nothing quite so much as a freshly caught fish.
Birds, however, can be almost as tempting as seafood. Inspired both by hunger and a desire to silence the parrot’s inane chatter, the rabbi’s cat swiftly dispatches his feathered nemesis. And then a miracle occurs: he begins to speak. His first words an abject lie denying any responsibility for the parrot’s death, the cat immediately begins to display some startlingly human characteristics.
Zlabya, naturally, is delighted that she can now have an intelligent conversation with her pet, and the two spend many happy hours together reading Stendhal’s ‘The Red and the Black’. Rabbi Abraham, however, is concerned that the cat – despite its reassurances that Stendhal’s novel is no more than a love story – is encouraging his child to read political propaganda, and forbids her from spending any further time with the feline menace.
Now forced to spend time with his master, the cat engages Rabbi Abraham in a series of conversations on the nature and meaning of Judaism. The cat is interested in the Talmud, insists God created him in His image (“I am the Lord your God, disguised as a cat. I am displeased with your conduct”), and lobbies desperately to have his own bar mitzvah, despite the fact that he’s not yet been circumcised.
And that’s only the beginning of a most unusual adventure that ultimately leads the cat and his Rabbi to Ethiopia and beyond in a Citroën half-track flying the artfully redesigned flag of Czarist Russia, accompanied by a Sufi mystic, an alcoholic adventurer, and a handsome young Russian Jew who’s smuggled himself out of the motherland in a crate full of prayer books.
Influenced in equal part by Herge’s Tintin (most obviously during a sequence in which our intrepid adventurers encounter a white reporter and his snowy white dog in the Belgian Congo) and by the work of the Fleischer Brothers, The Rabbi’s Cat provides a delightfully askew disquisition on theology, philosophy, and the competing and interrelated narratives of Judaism and Islam. All that, and you get an animated pogrom, too.
Footnote: although this is an animated film, it is not suitable for any but the oldest children. That said, it’s not Fritz the Cat, either, and is unlikely to be harmful to anyone over ten years of age.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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