If Grumpy Cat is the blockbuster franchise of cat videos, “Kedi” is the “Citizen Kane” of the genre. Though technically a sophisticated, artful documentary from Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun, “Kedi” will automatically find devout fans among anyone who delights at all things feline. (I’m an unapologetic member of that club.) Shot throughout the streets of Istanbul, the movie takes the inherent appeal of its subject and goes beyond the call of duty.
Cat lovers may be content with a mashup of feline faces bounding around the city, but hell, YouTube’s got that covered. “Kedi” isolates the profound relationship between man and cat by exploring it across several adorable cases in a city dense with examples. The result is at once hypnotic and charming, a movie with the capacity to elicit both the OMG-level effusiveness of internet memes and existential insights. Torun interviews a variety of locals about their bonds with the creatures, but the cats themselves take center stage, transforming the experience into a spiritual meditation on their significance to modern civilization.
“Kedi” — the name is Turkish for you-know-what — opens by explaining the role of stray cats in Turkish culture for thousands of years, but thankfully wastes no time with a complex history lesson. Torun dives into a montage of cats wandering the jagged urban landscape, daintily stepping across balconies and rooftops like an eternal Greek chorus bearing witness to the endless march of time.
It also doesn’t take too long to capture the sweet, enchanting qualities that leave so many of us smitten with these remarkable creatures: the nimble movements that seem to follow some kind of natural musicality, those colorful eyes rich with elusive meaning, a sense of individuality matched with a curiosity around the prospects of companionship…these are chief ingredients that reduce many of us to states of monosyllabic ecstasy, and they’re the visual building blocks that keep “Kedi” engaging over the course of its concise 75-minute length.
Torun compliments the movie’s visual appeal with surprisingly thoughtful observations from the various locals who discuss the cats throughout. The earliest montage is a symphonic celebration of the cats wandering Istanbul that recalls the Gershwin-spiced opening of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” As vibrant Turkish folk plays on the soundtrack, one subject remarks that “without the cat, Istanbul would lose its soul.” By showing how the cats interact with the city’s every crevice, “Kedi” leaves no doubt about that.
Cats have held appeal for filmmakers since the earliest days of the moving image (Thomas Edison recorded them boxing in an 1894 short), and “Kedi” does a terrific job of burrowing inside their worlds. Torun’s camera often stays at their level, darting through alleyways, late night rat battles, and feasts of anchovies provided by generous fisherman. But she just as often reveals the remarkable impact these creatures have on a wide array of people, who help the animals sustain their paw-to-mouth plights out of a duty they can only partially comprehend.
It’s possible that they’re compelled by just how much cats look like people. “Some cats have character,” says one subject. “You can tell from their faces.” Torun emphasizes that remark with recurring closeups of her subjects, even isolating a handful of recurring characters. There’s Duman, the glutton, who hangs out at a classy deli and scratches the window when he’s hungry, forcing butchers to put him on a diet, and “Little Lion,” a ferocious mouse-killer who earns his keep at an upscale fish restaurant, and several others. If Disney wanted to think outside the box for an upcoming project, transforming this world into an animated musical wouldn’t be such a far-fetched concept. These cats don’t speak, but they’re so expressive you can hear them anyway.
Nitpicking viewers might shrug off “Kedi” for lacking a precise narrative thread, as it veers from one cat profile to another, but Torun keeps the movie flowing along with compelling observations every couple of minutes. The cosmic perspective strikes a noticeable contrast to other modern cat documentaries (the two-part PBS series “The Story of Cats” comes to mind), which tend to favor the scientific approach. Instead, “Kedi” is a playful and poignant look at the complex nature of the creatures and their inherent appeal to humankind. It’s also unapologetically biased. “People who don’t like animals,” remarks one fisherman, “don’t like people.”
Some may take umbrage at that blanket statement, but it’s a testament to the intense allure of cats that enthusiasts regard as pure fact. Whether or not cats themselves care about this intense affection is beside the point — or easy enough to explain away. One savvy Turk argues that cats are more cognizant of a higher being governing their world, which explains their general sense of ambivalence toward people. But “Kedi” is ultimately a movie about a mystery. It’s impossible to fully explain how cats and people truly connect, considering their lack of a shared language. One interviewee argues that the relationship between cats and people is the closest we might get to understanding what it’s like to interact with aliens. If so, “Kedi” goes a long way towards making first contact. Then again, dog people may find themselves in the dark.
“Kedi” opens February 10 in New York at the Metrograph and on February 17 in Los Angeles at the Royal, with a national expansion to follow.