This animated feature, which opened nearly two years ago in its native France, finally arrives in South Florida this weekend, and from a design perspective, it’s an animaniac’s Mediterranean dream. But this agreeably tart adaptation of the first, second and fifth volumes of Joann Sfar popular comic book series is beset by a distinctly feline personality. (Sfar co-wrote and co-directed the celluloid incarnation of his work.) It’s petulant, sardonic, and occasionally blasé about its gorgeous surroundings. Like that stubborn tabby who wouldn’t stand still long enough for you to pet it, the film’s episodic structure mirrors a playful kitten’s attention span. It gets around to telling a couple of stories, but you have to give it time to stretch its legs.
The setting is Algiers in the early 1930s. Arabs and Jews didn’t have it easy back then, and that also applies to our leading feline. We first see our nameless protagonist – scrawny, gray-furred and pointy-eared – stealing a fish from a barrel…only to have it snatched from its paws by an unsavory alley cat. His owner, Rabbi Abraham Sfar (the voice of Maurice Bénichou), hasn’t even bothered to give him a name, but it doesn’t matter. Kitty only has eyes for the widower’s teenage daughter, the beautiful Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi), whom the cat refers to as “my mistress” in a way that would be creepy if he were human. If only she would get rid of that annoying parrot. Oh well, there are some things that you have to do yourself. Cue the squawks and flying feathers. Rabbi Sfar comes in to find the bird missing. Kitty insists he didn’t eat the annoying source of noise pollution. Yep, he actually said that.
What’s neat about the cat’s sudden ability to speak is that Sfar and screenwriting collaborator Sandrina Jardel don’t make a big deal out of it. If anything, the outspoken feline’s snarky remarks add up to one big headache for Abraham. “You lie when you shouldn’t and use the truth to hurt,” Rabbi Sfar observes. From this point on, The Rabbi’s Cat ambles from one narrative thread to another. Kitty helps out Abraham when he’s required to take a written exam in order to be regarded as an official rabbi in the eyes of France. A waiter at an outdoors café turns away the cylinder-nosed rabbi, openly stating, “No Arabs or Jews allowed.” The virile Lion Malka (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), the rabbi’s cousin, startles the locals by paying the family a visit with an actual lion in tow. It’s all pleasant and beautifully rendered, but Sfar and co-director Antoine Delesvaux don’t quite manage to build much narrative momentum until an intriguing turn of events involving a young, blonde Russian stowaway (Sava Lolov) and his quest to find African (non-Mediterranean) Jews. (Watch for a satirical, blink-and-you-missed-it cameo of a young reporter who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain iconic Belgian comic book fixture.) Even at this point, the opinionated feline at the center is often relegated to secondary status. He’s more of a storytelling device stitching the narrative together, subjected to the filmmakers’ whims. I also wished Sfar and Jardel had given Zlabya, who seems to be content with just being Daddy’s favorite, a stronger personality. Aladdin‘s Jasmine would have definitely unfriended her on Facebook.
If the film’s playful depiction of sobering subject matter en français rings a distant bell, you might be thinking of the Oscar-nominated Persepolis, which adapted Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels using hand-drawn animation. Satrapi, who co-directed that film, knew how to strike a balance between whimsy and hard-hitting reality. Sfar’s film is deliberately attempting to strike a lighter chord, even coming up with some surreal, stream-of-consciousness sequences that set it apart stylistically from much of what we’re used to seeing released on these shores. Its backgrounds are richly detailed, but what about the societal tensions simmering under the surface? One wishes The Rabbi’s Cat was less disjointed, a little more willing to take itself seriously, but it nevertheless engages from a formal point of view, and even establishes a faith-based, philosophically driven dialogue between a true believer and an irreverent skeptic. Only one of them coughs up hairballs.
I can totally imagine Sfar’s impish, sharp-tongued scoundrel sitting in front of a screen showing Leviathan, transfixed by the images of fish making caught in a large net and making their way inside a trawler off the coast of New Bedford, Mass. This immersive avant-garde documentary from directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, a production of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab doesn’t just try to capture a shipping vessel’s daily grind. Using small cameras with what seem to be – appropriately enough – fisheye lens, the audience becomes the ship’s bowels. We’re transported to the exterior, where rough seas and cawing seagulls elbow each other for screen time. Back on deck, workers toil away in a cacophony of machinery, rubber footwear and stinging surf. Want to know what a fish head feels like when it’s discarded? Wonder no more.
By now, you’re either excited by the aural and visual descriptions I’ve just given, or your eyes are glazing over. Leviathan‘s lack of a traditional structure could prove maddening for many viewers, but I found the absence of a running commentary to be liberating rather than constricting. Even at just 87 minutes, the film turns out to be quite the endurance test, but one I found rewarding, and not nearly as daunting as it might sound on the page. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel aim to strip their subject of Meaning. Their maritime symphony achieves a brusque dissonance.
Leviathan beckons adventurous cinephiles to take the plunge beginning Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema). The Rabbi’s Cat arrives Thursday at O Cinema in Miami Shores (o-cinema.org).