Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Oscar nominations will be announced next Thursday, January 10th. Some of the categories are less of a mystery than others because finalists have already been announced. Jewish themes are often present in two such races, Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary. This year, however, another field with predetermined contenders has a film with remarkably unsubtle Jewish overtones. Among the twenty-one films deemed eligible for Best Animated Feature is The Rabbi’s Cat, a film with an unmistakable and highly curious focus.
Based on the popular 2002 graphic novel, which has been described as a mix of Voltaire, Jewish Algerian culture, and Albert Cohen, The Rabbi’s Cat is not your typical Oscar-friendly animated feature. Joann Sfar adapted his own work to create this eccentric and entertaining feature film, which is recommended for ages thirteen and up. The fantastical tale follows the loyal cat of an Algerian rabbi who suddenly gains the magical ability to speak. That mysterious gift prompts him to question his master about his beliefs and to begin an adventure-filled voyage through Africa to explore the surrounding culture and its religions.
The Rabbi’s Cat is a unique specimen in itself, and it presents an intriguing opportunity for religious conversation. The rabbi is rarely seen practicing Jewish rituals, yet he frequently opens his Jewish books and takes a moment to study. When the cat begins to talk, he immediately takes issue with the creation story and its timing considering the archeological evidence that confirms that the world is much older than biblical stories would suggest. The cat cannot comprehend why the rabbi is unwilling to train him for his Bar Mitzvah, as he believes that his miraculous ability to speak should present him with the same opportunities as any other being brought up in a Jewish home.
The cat is far from pure, of course, since his main object is to attract the affection of Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter and his cherished caretaker. His first words come after he has devoured the rabbi’s parrot, which he immediately denies. The rabbi chastises him and doubts his goodness because he begins his speech with a lie. His verbal capabilities are not unlimited, and he seems truly destitute when he realizes that the humans in his life can no longer comprehend him when he speaks. The portrayal of speech as a privilege rather than a right for an animal such as the cat is definitely thought-provoking.
The cat’s journey with his master starts when the rabbi learns that he must complete a French dictation to prove his language skills in order to be certified as the local religious authority. The rabbi’s lack of confidence, matched with the cat’s formidable intellectual prowess, prompts them to travel throughout Africa in search of answers. The rabbi picks up his good friend and distant relative, a Muslim Sheik, along the way. The friendship between the two sages of different religions is inspiring, and contrasts sharply with the aggression and intolerance they meet with as they interact with others during their trip.
The Rabbi’s Cat presents interesting philosophy and tackles its subject matter from a creative angle. Its beginning and middle are stronger than its end, as events transpire quickly and come to a peculiar and unsatisfying conclusion. Yet this is a worthwhile and notable cinematic achievement, and it would be refreshing to see Oscar voters reward it. It pairs well with Chico and Rita, a Cuban love story that managed a nomination last year. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine The Rabbi’s Cat finding a place among the likes of Brave, Frankenweenie, and Wreck-It Ralph. Call this one a dark horse with truly unknown chances.
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December 24, 2012 | 10:28 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Since the next two months will undoubtedly be all about the Oscars, let’s take a moment to recognize the Jewish characters to be found among those nominee lists that reward television too. The two major awards bodies that also serve as Oscar predictors are the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which gives out the Golden Globes.
The Screen Actors Guild unveiled its choices for the best of 2012 on Wednesday, December 12th. This awards body is notable because it hands out precious few trophies, and is very deliberate about its categories. For film, four major acting categories and an ensemble award are doled out, with five nominees apiece. For TV, there is one male category and one female category for each genre – comedy, drama, and miniseries/TV movie – as well as two ensemble prizes, one for comedy and one for drama.
Among the casts SAG nominated, there are four shows with a handful of distinguished Jewish characters among them. Boardwalk Empire depicts a number of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and Mad Men had its new signature Jewish copywriter used by his employers to help make their client Manischewitz feel more comfortable. On The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg’s Howard Wolowitz can’t escape his Jewishness – or his Jewish mother – while Glee’s portrayal of its Jewish high school students leaves much to be desired: Puck’s family incomprehensibly screens Schindler’s List every year on Simchat Torah, and Rachel always talks only about what she wants for Christmas despite her obvious, and much-discussed, Jewish roots.
The HFPA, which announced its picks on Thursday, December 13th, managed to honor more individual TV Jews. No ensemble awards exist, and actors are recognized not by gender but by lead or supporting status. Lead stars in drama series, comedy series, and miniseries/TV movies get their own categories, while all supporting actors or supporting actresses from any of those mediums get lumped into one race. What that means for this year is one particularly diverse representation of television Judaism, in the Best Supporting Actor field. Ed Harris’ John McCain and Eric Stonestreet’s Modern Family member are joined by standout players from three very different shows. Danny Huston plays Jewish mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond on Starz’s otherwise entirely missable Magic City, the emblem of brutality and power. Max Greenfield is the hilarious Schmidt on New Girl, a well-dressed ladies’ man with frequent stories about his Jewish upbringing and, most recently, his recollection of a directive from Rabbi Shmuley not to tell the other kids that Santa wasn’t real. And finally there’s Mandy Patinkin, who netted his first nomination after being snubbed last year, as Saul Berenson, the distinctly Jewish senior CIA agent who serves as mentor to loose cannon and series protagonist Carrie on Homeland. Saul most recently recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, for the second time in the show’s history, in the season finale after a deadly terrorist attack claimed many lives. Putting Diamond, Schmidt, and Saul in the same race makes for quite a competition, and it’s nice to see such strong, if not entirely pure, representations of Jews in contention for recognition this year.
The Golden Globes air on January 13th, and the SAG Awards are on January 27th. In the coming weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the film nominees from both organizations as the Oscar nominations approach, on January 10th. But fear not, as new shows premiere in late winter and early spring, it’s more than likely that fresh Jewish characters will grace television screens once again.
December 17, 2012 | 2:16 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
It’s no secret that there are Jews all over Hollywood. Both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, it’s hard to find a film or TV show that doesn’t have a Jew involved in some capacity. Jews win Oscars, Emmys, and other awards all the time. This blog will focus on those instances where Judaism seeps into those projects, tracking awards contenders with an eye on Jewish themes.
Oscar season is already underway. To prepare for this year’s race, let’s start with a quick overview of what kind of Jewish movies usually grab Oscar voters’ attention. There are three major categories: Holocaust movies, films about anti-Semitism, and, most recently, films from Israel.
Over the past sixty-five years, many films have been made about the Holocaust. The Diary of Anne Frank was a Best Picture nominee in 1959, and Nazis appeared in 1965 Best Picture winner The Sound of Music and 1972 nominee Cabaret, among others. In the past twenty-five years, noted Jewish filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski have had great success with Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscars, and The Pianist, which won three, respectively. Lesser known directors have also done well, with movies like Life is Beautifuland The Reader taking home acting trophies and netting Best Picture nominations. Foreign films like Germany’s Downfall and Austria’s The Counterfeiters have shown up in the Best Foreign Film race.Inglourious Basterds is an entirely different story, but its Oscar appeal was still high. Not all Holocaust movies are Oscar draws, however, as exemplified by three 2008 films, Defiance, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, andGood, only one of which netted a nomination (for music).
Anti-Semitism as an Oscar-friendly topic dates back to 1947, when Gregory Peck’s reporter pretended to be Jewish to expose discrimination in Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Anti-Semitism was front-and-center in sports in 1981 winner Chariots of Fire and 1994 nominee Quiz Show. The 1972 Munich massacre was chronicled both in 2000 Best Documentary winner One Day in September and 2005 Best Picture nomineeMunich.
Israel officially ranks as the most-nominated country in the Best Foreign Film category never to win. The sixth most-nominated nation overall has earned ten Oscar nominations, four of which have come in the last five years. Most of those films are only tangentially Jewish, merely incorporating aspects of the culture. Beaufortand Waltz with Bashir were about soldiers, Ajami about Israeli-Palestinian relations, and Footnote about a family of intellectuals. Israel’s first nominee in this category, 1964’s Sallah Shabati, chronicled Jewish emigration to the newly founded state of Israel, accurately echoing the times. Films explicitly about Jewish themes in Israel are still made, but they don’t tend to be Oscar winners.
Additionally, Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand get their own category of lighter entertainment that Oscar voters seems to like, with Annie Hall and Funny Girl serving as their best respective successes. Arguably one of the most Jewish films ever made, Fiddler on the Roof, did exceptionally well in 1971, earning eight nominations, including Best Picture, and taking home three trophies. There are other exceptions, but, generally speaking, these are the best ways to win Oscar voters over for Jewish films.
A number of Oscar precursors have already announced their picks for the best in cinema this year. Next time, we’ll take a look at how Jewish themes are shaping up to play into the Oscar race this year.