At only 41, Joann Sfar has enjoyed a meteoric rise in France, rocketing from cartoonist to filmmaker in short succession.
Sephardi on his father’s side and Ashkenazi on his mother’s, Sfar created “The Rabbi’s Cat” graphic novels beginning in 2005— critical darlings, steeped in Jewish Algerian-French lore, yet somehow striking a universal chord among comic-book connoisseurs worldwide.
In 2010, Sfar wrote/directed the live-action “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” chronicling the life of late Jewish/French pop singer/icon Serge Gainsbourg, from his Vichy France childhood to his love affairs with Juliette Greco and Brigitte Bardot. Little circulated in the States, the well-received biopic landed 11 César Award nominations, winning three.
Now, for one week only, the animated feature “The Rabbi’s Cat” is screening at select Laemmle theaters and the Downtown Independent in its native French.
Directed by Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux, “The Rabbi’s Cat” features a cast headed by François Morel as the cat, Maurice Bénichou (the rabbi), and Hafsia Herzi (the rabbi’s daughter Zlabya). Superstar French singer Enrico Macias, himself a Sephardi Jew from Algeria (ne Gaston Ghrenassia), graces the soundtrack.
In the superficial sense, “The Rabbi’s Cat” is very much Sfar’s “Persepolis” (Marjane Satrapi’s 2007 animated feature based on her two heralded autobiographical tomes from 2003-04 about her Iranian Revolution childhood) in the sense that the movie is a stylistically faithful adaptation of his graphic novels, “The Rabbi’s Cat” (2005) and “The Rabbi’s Cat 2” (2008).
Set in 1930s Algeria, the original “Rabbi’s Cat” comic book featured a cat belonging to the widowed rabbi and his daughter. After the cat kills and devours the family parrot, he gains the ability to speak, and the rabbi sets out to teach him Torah and prepare him for his bar mitzvah. Meanwhile, Zlabya falls for and marries a charming Parisian rabbi, and her father and cat sojourn to meet Zlabya’s Parisian in-laws. In the sequel, the rabbi, his cat, the rabbi’s Koran-thumping sheikh cousin and a Russian-Jewish painter (rather symbolically) journey in search of an African Jerusalem.
Sfar’s animated feature version conflates both books into one rambling story, eradicating Zlabya’s Parisian love interest story altogether for the Russian-Jewish painter, an exile from the Ukraine, where he was saved from a pogrom by being clandestinely shipped to Africa.
In the movie, the cat’s ability to talk comes and goes and can be heard depending on who is around. The film implies that the cat is something of a twist on Jiminy Cricket: a nagging, questioning inner voice the other characters choose to either obey or ignore.
Even as he seeks bar mitzvah instruction, the cat doubts the existence of God and questions 5,700 years of history, evoking science and prehistoric man when confronted with the Adam and Eve story.
“To be Jewish is to fear God,” the rabbi tells the cat. And to be Jewish is to challenge His commandments, as various characters demonstrate throughout the movie.
Upon the painter’s arrival at the rabbi’s doorstep in Algiers, the movie shifts into “The Rabbi’s Cat 2” mode. Faster than Zlabya can take a quick liking to the brawny blond man, the Russian Jew, along with the rabbi, the cat, a drunken mad Russian and the sheikh, unite on a quest to find Africa’s Jerusalem, a paradise where Jews and blacks harmoniously comingle, via a dilapidated Citreon half-track. As the participants on this excursion multiply into a human/animal menagerie, one character exclaims, “It’s Noah’s Ark!”
In previous interviews, Sfar has cited such influences as Belgian cartoonist André Franquin (“Gaston”); Italy’s Hugo Pratt (“Corto Maltese”); father of the American graphic novel Will Eisner (“A Contract With God”), and legendary Marvel Comics penciler John Buscema, as well as Jewish fine artists Chagall and Soutine.
However, indisputably casting the largest shadow across the European comics tradition was the late Belgian Herge, creator of “The Adventures of Tintin,” whose boy reporter debuted as a strip in 1929, to be later reworked into the internationally best-selling graphic novel albums. The late Herge was a pioneer of the ligne claire (“clear line”) aesthetic; In “The Rabbi’s Cat,” there’s a hearty (if not particularly flattering) wink-wink to this influence during a Belgian Congo sequence featuring a pair of characters who may or may not be Tintin and Milou (a.k.a. Snowy).
In late 2012, Sfar’s film was on a shortlist of 10 long-form cartoons for Oscar consideration in the best animated feature category. It missed the final cut, which now boils down to “Brave,” “Frankenweenie,” “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” “Wreck-It-Ralph” and “ParaNorman.”
It’s easy to see why. There are a few jolting instances of explicit violence and suggested sexual situations in which “The Rabbi’s Cat” waves its European freak flag, reminding viewers this is not typical Hollywood product. No American studio would include matter-of-fact death scenes in a general-audience film.
Ultimately, “Rabbi’s Cat” functions much like “The Illusionist” did in 2010, when the Jacques Tati-scripted Belgian film — quieter, subtler and punctuated with poignant passages — was nominated as best animated feature. (The award ended up going to Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.”)
What “The Rabbi’s Cat” is not is the type of loud, shrill, over-the-top-acting-plus-requisite-third-act-chase kind of animated feature which Hollywood cranks out like sausage these days. At one point in the movie, the Russian artist presents a hardened adversary with a sketch he drew of him, mumbling a passing self-critique: “A bit stylized, but drawn with love.”
A fitting summation of the movie itself.