Rabbis best friend: a philosophical cat and fellow traveler

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Animated movies invite us to lose ourselves in a wholly invented world.

A deliciously delirious feature by French Jewish filmmakers Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux, “The Rabbi’s Cat” is set in a real time and place — Algeria in the 1930s, where Sephardic Jews and Arabs had a long history of coexistence — yet evokes the anything-can-happen quality of a fairy tale.

Adapted from Sfar’s best-selling graphic novel and its sequels, “The Rabbi’s Cat” marries his witty, untethered animation to a great, bouncy soundtrack. It’s a deeply pleasurable experience, not least because it doesn’t push and strain for deep meanings.

A rabbi and his loquacious feline take a worldly journey in search of a lost tribe in “The Rabbi’s Cat.” photo/gkids.tv

The episodic, digressive film may not build to a moral, but if there is a takeaway it’s that we should aspire to tolerance rather than dogmatism.

“The Rabbi’s Cat,” which won France’s César Award for best animated feature, opens Friday, Jan. 18 in San Francisco and San Rafael. A few sexual references and a couple of brief sequences of violence perhaps make the subtitled film inappropriate for children younger than 12.

Imbued with the surreal illogic of a dream, “The Rabbi’s Cat” is utterly unique, even if the hand-drawn visuals may remind some viewers of Marc Chagall’s childlike exuberance and vibrant palette.

A widowed, middle-age sage enjoys a tranquil, affable life with his curvaceous teenage daughter, Zlabya, who’s more interested in boys and gossip than the words of the prophets, and his cat, who accompanies him on his rounds to cafes, shul, etc.

Complying with the immutable laws of nature, one day the cat kills and devours Zlabya’s pet parrot. In a decidedly unnatural turn of events, the cat acquires the power of speech.

His first utterance is a denial that he’s responsible for the bird’s demise, a lie that provokes the rabbi into a Talmud lesson. To our amazement, the acerbic and impolitic feline is fully capable of debating issues of faith and Jewish law.

Needless to say, the rabbi can hold his own, while generally maintaining his good humor. Overall, he’s a model of equanimity, which proves essential when the duo embarks on an expedition across the continent.

The impetus is the arrival of a Russian Jewish painter who’s searching for a lost tribe and a rumored city in Ethiopia. The helpful rabbi and curious cat enlist a wealthy entrepreneur and an Arab sheikh in the artist’s quest, and the quintet set off on a meandering trek through the African desert.

The film unfolds in a romantic and exotic setting, but it doesn’t romanticize or exoticize human nature. Neither colorblind nor politically correct, “The Rabbi’s Cat” revels in mocking those who see only religion, race and color.

For instance, after a memorable threatening encounter with a Muslim hardliner, one of the would-be pilgrims remarks, “It’s a pity He lets so many fools speak in His name.”

Bigotry is not limited to one religion, however. The mysterious city, when they finally reach it, turns out to be populated by black Jews who can’t conceive of white co-religionists and pull out their spears. Their murderous aims come to naught, fortunately.

The droll fatalism that runs through “The Rabbi’s Cat” is just one among many delights. But it’s the most consistent indicator, ultimately, of the film’s Jewish source and sensibility.

“The Rabbi’s Cat” opens Friday, Jan. 18 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. In French with English subtitles. (Not rated, 89 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.