Most of the problems in the world's religions are caused by disagreements and cultural differences that create boundaries and walls. Or as the great Catholic spiritual teacher Anthony de Mello once put it: "The human mind makes foolish divisions in what love sees as one." The last place we would expect to find such a profound subject explored is in a French animated film based on a comic book series by graphic artist Joanne Sfar.
The Rabbi's Cat is set in Algeria during the 1930s when Jews, Arabs, and French people lived side by side in relative peace and equality. Directors Joanne Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux have assembled a talented group of animators who use a palette of browns, golds, oranges, and blues to capture the beauty of the place with its fountains, palm trees, tiled terraces, sandy expanses, and blue sea. The music by Olivier Daviaud gives us a feel for the diverse culture with its blend of Mediterranean and French influences. All of these artistic qualities are in service of the film's imaginative exploration of Judaism, Sufism and Islam; the challenges of multifaith dialogue; the dangers of religious zealotry; the needless suffering caused by racism; and the salutary importance of religious diversity in our pluralistic world.
Rabbi Sfar (voiced by Maurice Benichou) lives with his voluptuous daughter Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi) and their mischievous cat. After eating the family's talking parrot, the feline (Francois Morel) starts talking in human language, much to the amazement of the rabbi who suddenly finds himself having to answer questions about God and faith.
Although the cat has little interest in the story of creation, declaring the biblical version "ridiculous," he becomes convinced that as a Jewish cat he must have a bar mitzvah. At a loss for what to do, the rabbi goes to his teacher for counsel, but this conservative elder recommends drowning the cat for his vanity and lack of respect for essential Jewish belief.
Sfar and his co-director amplify the story with a succession of visits to the rabbi's house by guests and encounters with strangers. The rabbi hosts his cousin Malka of the Lions (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and on a pilgrimage to a saint's tomb, joins another cousin, Mohammed Sfar (Fellag Sheik), a Sufi lover of God whose openness to the variety of faiths is admirable. The sheik's donkey also talks.
Later, these two travel with a Russian painter (Sava Lova) and a reporter (Francois Damiens) to find the fabled African Jerusalem in Ethiopia, reputed to be the homeland for all blacks and Jews. Along the way, they stop in the encampment of a desert prince (Mathieu Amalric) and his fanatically conservative followers. (An outbreak of violence and two deaths in this scene make this animated feature unsuitable for younger children.) Further on, the Russian meets a beautiful black woman in a bar; they fall in love and are married by the rabbi. Meanwhile, the cat pines for his mistress.
Throughout this adventure, the rabbi and his companions learn many lessons. Signs of the presence of God are all around you. There is no value in trying to figure out which religion is better. When you see a new thing, advises the Sufi, just look and don't speak; silence is precious.
These religious pilgrims, in their own ways, heed the advice of the late Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba who often said, "Don't throw anyone out of your heart." The force of love leads us beyond the world of separations created by ignorance, distrust, and fear. Because it emphasizes the essential unity of life, The Rabbi's Cat is one of the Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2012.
Special features on the DVD include a bonus documentary on the filmmaker: "Joann Sfar Draws from Memory"; the "making of" featurette; and the U.S. trailer.