by David Lamble
As we meet graphic novelist Joann Safar's cynical, judgmental, unscrupulous and unreliable narrator in The Rabbi's Cat, the creature is dunking a paw into a barrel of fish before a jovial longshoreman gives him the boot. Soon our kitty cat has his jaws around a wharf rat, only to have it snatched away by a small army of toms.
"Jews aren't keen on dogs. Dogs bite or chase you. Jews have been barked at for so long, they prefer cats. Well, at least that's what my master says. My master is Rabbi Sfar. I don't have a name. Throughout [the Casbah, the old quarter of] Algiers, I'm known as the rabbi's cat."
Already middle-aged at the onset of this imaginatively constructed, peripatetic tale (7 = 49 in human years), the cat doubles down on his feline wiles to convince his pious if unassuming master to allow him a bar mitzvah. The cat wants to wiggle in closer to the rabbi's voluptuous, restless daughter Zlabya, who herself is becoming man-hungry. A surreal beat revealing the high aims of Safar and co-director Antoine Delesvaux has the cat "corrupting" Zlabya by reading aloud from 19th-century French novelist Stendhal's The Red and the Black. The cat has acquired a voice (the tartly witty Francois Morel) after swallowing the family parrot – a crime he denies, reinforcing the rabbi's determination to prevent the duplicitous beast from tutoring Zlabya.
Safar uses the cat as a wedge to convince the rabbi to flee his all-too-orderly existence. Badgered by his cat into taking an exam administered by mysterious Parisian rabbinical authorities, the rabbi is soon hanging out with as wild an assortment of characters as those found in Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. From a serpent-toothed, ill-tempered older rabbi – the cat's insistence on godlike meddling in human affairs drives him bananas – to a bohemian father/son duo to a dour band of religiously paranoid Bedouins, Safar displays the human roadblocks to Jewish coexistence across several centuries of North African civilization. The oddest and most appealing of the rabbi's new companions is a beautiful Russian boy painter at first mistaken for dead, whose talents with a brush give the filmmakers artistic license to expand their own graphic paint-box.
As long as the cat stays in the picture in Safar's North African Baedeker – complete with verbal fistfights, wild digressions into Jewish spiritual mysticism, and Jewish/Arab dust-ups – the piece is coherent and wickedly funny, a child's guide to North African spirituality as envisioned by, say, Bill Maher. But when our puss temporarily loses his ability to talk to humans, chaos quickly ensues, and you can't wait for the closing credits.
Just before outgrowing my childhood obsession for talking animal fables, I read Paul Gallico's enchanting, religiously slanted fantasy, Thomasina : the Cat who Thought She Was God , later a Disney live-action feature, The Three Lives of Thomasina. It's odd this many years later to encounter a partially re-imagined, vastly more sophisticated, thoroughly unsentimental version of a story my childhood self once found so enchanting. In The Rabbi's Cat, Safar shows us the reason for the popularity of talking-creature tales across Anglo/American culture: the animals are in many ways intellectual, emotional and spiritual training wheels for our own future leaps into grappling with those big issues. For those of us unwilling to grant religious license to any human figure, the puss who mischievously appropriates this authority can still wield wicked powers. (Opens Friday.)