Like the title character, the makers of “The Rabbi’s Cat” follow their noses wherever a new scent leads. Their eternal curiosity buoys this “Cat,” then impairs it somewhat, but redeems it by the end.
The narrative has the surreal quality of multiple dreams stuck together and depicted in different styles. (The animation, hand-drawn throughout, mostly uses simple visual lines to tell a complex story.) It comes from a comic book by Joann Sfar, who wrote the script with Sandrina Jardel and directed with Antoine Delesvaux.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that adventures begin and end abruptly, exotic characters appear and amount to virtually nothing, and rules change along the way. Sometimes the cat can speak to humans, especially after gobbling a parrot; sometimes he can’t. When he does speak, he understands all languages: A painter fleeing a pogrom talks in Russian, and only the feline and a Russian millionaire can communicate with him.
The “pogrom” clue tells us we’re among Jews – in this case, Jews in Algiers circa 1920, where they coexist in relative peace with Muslims. Until the painter arrives, the cat (François Morel) lives in untroubled comfort with his owners, Rabbi Abraham Sfar (Maurice Bénichou) and his daughter (Hafsia Herzi).
Then the painter (Sava Lolov) steps out of a crate full of prayer books, speaking rhapsodically of a place in Ethiopia where Africans have created a Jerusalem full of black Jews. The rabbi, the cat, the painter and an imam who seems to be the rabbi’s Islamic cousin (Mohamed Fellag of “Monsieur Lazhar”) set off to find it, on a journey funded and directed by the alcoholic, belligerent millionaire. (I say “seems” because we have to fill in storytelling gaps.)
Their journey takes them to Ethiopia by way of the Belgian Congo, which is like going from Charlotte to Dallas via Chicago. They encounter a silly European exile – a swipe at the Belgian comic-book character Tintin – ravening crocodiles (not kosher, but edible in a pinch) and a nomadic tribe, whose chief (Mathieu Amalric) discusses religion and hospitality. (The movie’s one gory sequence comes from this meeting.)
The filmmakers insert but don’t belabor a message of tolerance. The rabbi and the imam respect each other and everyone else peacefully, and the latter is the wisest person around: He chats with his talking donkey when he has no human company.
Yet the prevailing mood is whimsical. The cat takes a “what fools these mortals be!” attitude toward people, though he loves his human cohabitants. The rabbi’s droll sense of humor surfaces at odd times, and we have to smile at a world where love blossoms instantly between strangers in a bar who share no nation or spoken language.
The filmmakers never forget that the cat, which has no name, is a cat: He hunts pitilessly, steals food and ruffles feathers, literally and metaphorically. He utters a sincere prayer about his younger owner: “May she never marry or have children! Amen!”
From you or me, that would sound like a curse; from a cat, it’s a desire not to share treats or affection. As always, you have to admire feline honesty.