Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Rabbi’s Cat: Conjuring Joann Sfar’s Imagined Memories of Algeria

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 6, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

A scene from The Rabbi's Cat

With over a hundred separate titles since he first began publishing nearly 20 years ago, Joann Sfar is one of France’s most prolific graphic novelists. His topics range from the historical to the fantastic, but his most compelling comics remain those that draw on his Jewish heritage, and his mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic background. Many of those titles have been translated into English: all 5 volumes of The Rabbi’s Cat, as well as Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East (the first of a three-part series), and Vampire Loves. A recent documentary currently making the festival circuit, Joann Sfar Draws from Memory, offers a glimpse into the mind and personality of a remarkable artist, and an extremely charismatic individual. Still most famous for his comics, Sfar has more recently turned to filmmaking. In 2010, he wrote and directed a uniquely imagined biopic of Serge Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which mixes fact and fantasy to paint a complex and compelling portrait of one of the most controversial figures of French popular music. Although the movie was not an adaptation of a graphic novel, its production coincided with the publication of Sfar’s sprawling 450-page comic homage to the singer/songwriter, and Sfar’s surrealist-inspired visual eye is evident in almost every frame of the film. In 2011, The Rabbi’s Cat (Le chat du rabbin), Sfar’s film adaptation of his extremely popular series (published in France from 2002-2006, and currently translated into eight languages), was released. It was his second feature film, and it marked the first time he’d attempted to directly translate one of his illustrated narratives onto the big screen.

Despite premiering at Cannes in 2011, and winning the César (France’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Animated Film back in February, The Rabbi’s Cat simply hasn’t yet received the distribution it deserves in the English-speaking world. An accident, perhaps, of it coming on the scene in the same year as another much better publicized 3-D animated film also set in colonial Africa and based on a French-language comic, also with preternaturally intelligent animals in tow: Tintin, with the full might of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg behind it, certainly guaranteed that it would get most of our attention in 2011, but The Rabbi’s Cat is as different from Tintin, as, well, cats are to dogs.

Director/illustrator Joann Sfar
Whereas Spielberg’s Tintin uses the latest in computer animation and motion capture technology (to great success, in my opinion), The Rabbi’s Cat goes old-school – using hand-drawn animation to bring Sfar’s story to life, with images and techniques inspired as much by the early animation of the Fleischer Studios in the 1930s as it is by more recent films like The Lion King and The Prince of Egypt. The result is stunning – in 2 or 3 dimensions.

Set in 1920’s Algeria and Africa, The Rabbi’s Cat quickly introduces a colourful array of characters: the Rabbi Sfar, his earthy daughter Zlabya, their unnamed cat, a Muslim sheikh (also named Sfar), a desert Jew named Malka with a lion in tow, a Tsarist libertine, and a romantic Jewish artist fleeing the shtetls and pogroms of Russia in search of a mythic African-Jewish homeland. Beginning with the cat’s sudden acquisition of the power of speech and ending deep in the heart of Africa, the screenplay adapts only three of the 5-volume series (books 1,2, and 5). The result is inevitably more episodic than the books, but the script still succeeds in tying its many stories together, albeit more thematically than narratively.

The film is also a remarkable exercise in inherited memory for Sfar, drawing on the stories told to him by his Algerian-born grandmother (the inspiration for Zlabya). Sfar constructs an imaginary world which speaks as much to 21st century French multi-cultural realities as it represents 1920s North Africa. A productive fun-house mirror image of current, harsh realities, The Rabbis’ Cat is rightfully compared to Persepolis – another French animated film with comparable ambition, albeit a very different animation style. Part family chronicle, part road movie, The Rabbi’s Cat is a historically-inspired film which casts a keen, sideways eye on our contemporary world.

The project of translating the story to the screen apparently took over four years, and the production team went as far as sending sound technicians to North Africa for authenticity, and setting up live scenes – with voice actors in full costume– for Sfar’s team of animators draw from. The result is simultaneously epic and intimate, stunning and visually distinctive. The film is full of lush details: the streets of Algiers, the culture of its vibrant Jewish population, and the African savannah, all initially introduced from the eye-level perspective of a cat.

A page from The Rabbi's Cat, Vol. 1
The film is also in many ways a clever response to the distorted imagined realities of that particular era of Western colonialism. Sfar’s drawings, and the film as well, are clearly from the pen of a cartoonist fully aware of the destructive role cartoons and caricatures have played in the long and still on-going history of racism, anti-Semitism, and (more pointedly perhaps in recent weeks, in France especially) Islamophobia. But this self-awareness – either on the page or on the screen – never turns into self-consciousness. None of the questions that are posed by the film – most especially its central one (“What does it mean to be a Jew?”) – ever distract from the dreamlike and immersive quality of the movie. Sfar is less interested in having his characters debate socio-political realities than in having them simply sit down and eat together at a single table – often with explosive results.

The final words of the graphic novel series – words which almost close the film as well – are spoken by the Russian Jewish painter (who thinks like Marc Chagall and looks like a grown up version of Saint Exupéry’s Petit Prince), and may tell us all we need to know about Sfar’s understanding of the function of the artist: “Talking about things as they are isn’t my job,” the painter confesses. It isn’t, Sfar suggests, the artist’s job to describe things as they are – but rather how they might be, or how perhaps they could have been. To respect both the power and the limitations of image and language the way the cat learns to deal with his recently acquired gift: to make up stories, maybe even to tell lies.

Though having its release coincide with the U.S.-made Tintin was clearly an accident, The Rabbi’s Cat, it is worth noting, also includes a pointed cameo appearance by Tintin and Snowy, along with some exaggeratedly Belgian-accented French. Sfar’s original books are partially a commentary on Hergé’s Eurocentric depiction of Africa, and I like to believe that Sfar found some delight in imagining the two movies fighting it out at his local Parisian cinema. 

On October 21, 2012, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival hosted a special screening of The Rabbi’s Cat. It was the film’s Toronto premiere. All five original French volumes of Le chat du rabbin have been translated into English and collected by Pantheon in a 2-volume set, The Rabbi’s Cat (1 and 2).