Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 12, 2012 1:22 pm 
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A talking cat and a wandering story set in 1920's Algiers

This charming and benignly crazy tale about the adventures of an unorthodox rabbi, his cat, his daughter, and assorted other characters comes to us from a popular French comic strip. The creator, Joanne Sfar, bases people and events, set in the 1920's, on his own family background. He comes from Algeria and is a Jew of dual Sephardic and Ashkenazi heritage. This must first be seen as a lovingly executed work of visual art. The images are delightful and colorful. And there are many witty incidents. But the film suffers from the same weakness as Sfar's debut live action feature, the Serge Gainsbourg biopic, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. Wonderful, inventive episodes, but an inability to meld them into a coherent whole. It comes from forming his sense of structure while working in the comic strip format, perhaps.

The soon-to-be talking cat (voiced by François Morel), first of all, is an African breed with a long gray body and pointed snout and big pinted ears. He looks like a king-size comic strip mouse. The first scenes are the best, in which we meet rabbi Sfar (Maurice Benichou), a lusty roly-poly, quite unlearned chap with a white fringe beard and an ancien-régime look unlike the conventional image of a Jewish cleric. His daughter Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi, Kéchiche's discovery in The Secret of the Grain) is voluptuous, and adored by the rabbi's cat, which jealously devours a pet parrot, whereupon he begins to speak.

The cat's conversations with the rabbi are droll. He wants to become a Jew, so as to be sure of remaining with Zlabya, and if he can't be circumcised, he'd at least like a bar mitzvah. This doesn't sit well with the rabbi's rabbi (Daniel Cohen), who's as mean and severe as rabbi Sfar is easy-going. This is 1920's Algiers, and Algeria is under French colonial rule, so it turns out rabbi Sfar has to take a dictation test to prove his French is up to par. The cat is better at spelling, and wants to take it for the rabbi. The cat invokes the Almighty to get the rabbi a good grade, but in doing so loses the power of speech again himself. It all sounds silly, but it's congenial to watch.

Later when Sfar & Co. introduce other characters, a Russian lady, a blond guy escaped from a pogrom, and they all go off in a Citroën truck to find the Abyssinian jews, getting into a fight with a desert prince (Mathieu Amalric) along the way, the narrative starts seeming more and more pointless. I wanted to loe this -- I really did. I'd been looking forward to it for over a year since I heard about the project, and more so after June 2011 when it opened in France to rave reviews (Allociné 3.6). I couldn't really see (as Eric Loret wrote in Libération) that this "like its comic strip original" is a "didactic poem" that is "both ecumenical and anti-religous." This tendency appears in the early discussions between the cat and the rabbi and the rabbi's rabbi, and the rabbi's relationships with muslims show a benign and ecumenical mood, but the episodic meanderings across Africa keep this from cohering into "a didactic poem." After its great beginning this animation (shown in pointless 3D, which adds nothing since the images are flat) unfortunately goes nowhere. But don't forget: the images are rich and individual, which stood out after having just watched the musically fine Chico & Rita, whose animation drawing (despite some nice detail in its period backgrounds) is too generic. Here the images are a continual pleasure even when the narrative begins to lose its grip. And the voicings and music are fin.

Le chat du rabbin (100min.) was released in France June 1, 2011 (Allociné critics rating: 3.6), after winning a Crystal award at the 2011 Annecy animation festival for best animated feature; it won the equivalent award at the 2012 Césars. It was screened for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films. Limited US release began Dec. 7, 2012 (NYC; LA, Dec. 14).

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