As dedicated film-goers understand, the beauty of film festivals is that they bring to us the new, surprising and off-beat films that simply will not find a mainstream audience for a general release. The irony is that even in our moment of sixteen free-to-air television channels, unlimited video on YouTube and easy illegal downloads of “How I Met Your Mother”, film festivals have continued to grow in popularity.
The Alliance Francaise film festival is one of the most popular “foreign” festivals in Australia. This year it surprises us with two unique French-Jewish historical films, one about a rabbi in early 20th century Algeria and the other about how Arab émigrés helped to save Jews in Paris during the Nazi occupation.
“The Rabbi’s Cat” (French title: “Le Chat du Rabbin”) is based on a five-part series of graphic novels (we used to call them “comics”) by French-Jewish artist Joann Sfar. At age 31, Sfar is one of a new generation of French comic artists, and acknowledges his debt to 1930s American animation styles, and is particularly influenced by Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine (a Jewish expressionist painter) and Will Eisner. He comes from both an Ashkenazi and Sephardic background and is strongly identified Jewish in his life and work.
Sfar had previously directed “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life”, which had a brief cinema release in Australia in mid-2010. He both wrote and co-directed the film “The Rabbi’s Cat”, and thus the animation is lovingly faithful to his striking visual style. However the true delight of the film is how it cleverly frames questions of modern Jewish identity. The fantastical story of how the widower Rabbi Sfar (yes, same surname), his grown daughter Zlabya and their talking cat (who swallowed a parrot, thus can speak) negotiate life in Algeria in the pre-war years operates in part as adventure story and in part as philosophical meditation on Jewish life. For Jews, many of the film’s scenes are, quite simply, laugh-out-loud funny.
Reviewers have described the film’s visual style as a cross between “Tintin” and Chagall, and compared it favourably to the Iranian animated film “Persepolis”. It won a top award at the 2011Annecy International Animated Film Festival, which is the premiere “go to” place for animated films. With its talking cat, there are shades of the 1986 animated film “An American Tail” (a Russian Jewish mouse emigrates to America) as well, but “The Rabbi’s Cat” is definitely for adults.
By contrast, the film “Free Men” (“Les Hommes Libre”) takes a direct dramatic approach. Set in 1942 occupied Paris, a young Algerian Muslim black market trader Younes (Tahar Rahim) is coopted by the French police to inform on activities at his local mosque (whose imam is played by Michael Lonsdale from “Of Gods and Men”). The politically naive Younes is gradually drawn into the intrigue and ends up supporting local Arab efforts of working with the Resistance to save French Jews. Reportedly “inspired by true events”, the film is a conscious effort to show that Arab-Jewish enmity is not ordained. The film provides a unique view (the Arab perspective) of a crucial period in history French-Jewish history, although the narrative develops somewhat slowly and the limited production values pale against sharper French films set during this period.
Both films screen numerous times in each city where the festival runs: Melbourne (7-25 March), Sydney (6-25 March), Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.
(This review appeared in a slightly different form in the Australian Jewish News on 1 March 2012.)