The Rabbi's Cat (Le chat du rabbin)
A shaggy dog story about a nearly hairless cat in 1920s Algiers. He serves his master the rabbi, but he loves his mistress, the rabbi’s fleshy daughter. When he eats the family parrot and so gains the power of speech, he seizes the opportunity to begin pitching woo. The rabbi will have none of it, so the cat proposes converting to Judaism in order to take off the curse. But the rabbi’s rabbi — a suspicious, hardline sort of Jew — won’t grant the cat a bar mitzvah, not so much because of the cat’s sophisticated, skeptical theology but because he’s, well, a cat.
It’s a sharp setup, and so gorgeously rendered that religious folk shouldn’t mind playing along with the gentle sacrileges, and unbelievers shouldn’t mind listening to all the God talk. Joann Sfar, who codirected and cowrote the film, also produced the graphic novels that serve as source material, and his style reads like a more detailed, earthier version of Herge’s Tintin. (Perhaps sensing this, the writers include a cameo from the famed boy reporter and present him as a condescending twit.)
But once the setup is seen to, the story splays out in all directions, and by the time the cat has ditched his beloved and joined the rabbi and a couple of Russians on a quest to locate a fabled city of Ethiopian Jews, the viewer may begin to wonder what exactly is going on. Something to do with the things that unite and divide us, be it religion, language, or art. (In general, the film posits that the more intensely religious you are, the less you will appreciate graven images, er, artistic beauty.) Something else to do with the primacy of decency over devotion, and of eros over all — even the rabbi’s rabbi rhapsodizes about God like he’s the lover in the Song of Solomon.