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The Cakemaker

The question of “Is a movie good?” has many potential factors to consider. Probably one of the most crucial is the question, “Is it worth the cost of watching?” Is the movie good enough to justify the cost of admission and the time it takes to sit through? And is it worth the time and trouble of actually finding the movie?

That last one doesn’t come up very often, as most films are readily available at your local multiplex, streaming service, or anywhere home media is sold. But for smaller and/or foreign films, that’s another deal entirely. I’m talking about movies that are released on maybe a hundred screens. Movies that take forever to hit home media and can’t be found anywhere when they finally do. Sadly, I tend to have a higher standard with such obscure and hard-to-find movies, because those have to be something extremely special to justify going so far out of your way to track down.

With that in mind, here’s an Israeli-German romantic drama from debut writer/director Ofir Raul Grazier. The film is unrated by the MPAA, it has no recognizable name stars, and I’d be amazed if the budget exceeded $1 million American. No major American studio was attached to this — not even the usual arthouse distributors like A24 or Oscilloscope Labs. The distributor this time is Strand Releasing, a company that specializes in LGBT movies and has released precisely jack shit that anyone might be expected to know about (aside from DVD reissues of The Graduate and Faster Pussycat Kill Kill).

By any metric, The Cakemaker is an obscure one. But is it a good movie? Good enough to be worth tracking down? Well, let’s take a closer look.

The premise begins with Oren (Roy Miller), whose work sends him traveling between Israel and Germany. In Jerusalem, he has a wife and a young son (Anat and Itai, respectively played by Sarah Adler and Tamir Ben Yahuda). In Berlin, he sneaks off to have sex with our eponymous baker (Thomas, played by Tim Kalkhof). This continuous affair goes on for roughly a year, until Oren goes back to Berlin and gets killed in a car accident.

In response, Thomas goes to Jerusalem and seeks out Anat. As it turns out, she’s having trouble running her own cafe while raising her son as a single mother and they’re both still in mourning. Anat needs help, so she hires the baker who’s sitting around with nothing to do. And wouldn’t you know it, Thomas is such a natural at the job, he starts baking for the company and business is booming.

The catch is that Thomas isn’t Jewish. Even worse, he’s in Israel — possibly the last place in all the world a German gentile would be welcome. As a direct result, any food made by his hands is not kosher, which means that Anat and Thomas have to dance perfectly through so many loopholes just to keep their business legal and open.

[Side note: Can we take a moment to appreciate how impressive it is that an Israeli-German production exists at all? How far we’ve come.]

Oh, and there’s also the fact that Thomas spent a year having sex with Anat’s husband and he’ll go to any lengths making sure she never finds out. Did I mention that part?

What makes it even more complicated is that Anat is terribly lonely and she’s having a hard time coping with all her stress on top of the grief in losing her husband. Then along comes Thomas, a perfect gentleman who’s young, attractive, eminently reliable, terribly lonely, a fantastic baker, he gets along well with Itai… really, he’s perfect for her. Except for the fact that she’s his boss, he’s a closeted homosexual, he’s a gentile in Israel, and again, he slept with her husband!

All of this makes for rich internal drama, especially given the performances involved. Adler turns in a marvelously vulnerable performance, but I was especially impressed with Kalkhof. This character is a total cypher and a hopeless introvert by nature, but the stoic nature of Kalkhof’s performance actually enhances the overall movie. There’s a certain kind of tension in how we never know completely what he’s thinking or what he’ll do next. Especially since we know the full story of Thomas’ relationship with Oren and nobody else does — Thomas’ constant poker face helps sell that dramatic irony very nicely. But what’s even better are the scenes in which Kalkhof shows the emotions bubbling just under the surface. It’s fascinating how Kalkhof shows the way Thomas keeps his emotions bottled up, and we get an appropriately heartbreaking scene when the dam finally breaks.

Another huge factor is in the camerawork and editing. It’s really quite remarkable how the picture fades to black at exactly the right time, or holds long enough to make a silence deliberately awkward. It’s not exactly a fast-paced movie, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a second wasted. It’s really quite impressive how the visuals and sound design work to keep the scale intimate and the stakes engaging.

The movie has a subtle touch to it, which is most appreciated in the grander political/religious aspect. The movie knows better than to directly address the Holocaust or get into the specifics of why Thomas might as well be a leper for how dangerous it is for him to be allowed in a kitchen. We’re only given all that we need to know, and the filmmakers trust us to connect the dots from there. Additionally, there is no two-dimensional uber-Jew who says that Thomas is inherently inferior just because. Sure, Moti (Anat’s brother, played by Zohar Strauss) probably thinks that, but he doesn’t say it. Instead, he’d rather take a condescending attitude, act all passive-aggressive while nudging Thomas to convert, plot behind everyone’s back to get his own way… everything but direct confrontation until it’s necessary. He comes across as an authentic human being and not a transparent villain, and I appreciate that.

Something else about Moti is that he’s never exactly wrong. He serves as a painful reminder that Thomas is an outsider, his presence is absolutely a problem (under the system as it currently exists, anyway), and he’s absolutely in the wrong as the man who fucked somebody he shouldn’t have. The filmmakers are very careful not to let Thomas or Oren off the hook for their transgressions, which opens up the highly potent themes of forgiveness and redemption.

But of course the far more prominent theme is that of love. The filmmakers are crystal clear in their depiction of love as a force that transcends politics and religion, crossing all borders and limits. But what makes this movie special is its depiction of love as a power that even transcends sexuality. Thomas is a gay man who obviously cares for Anat, which leads to the question of how far their love for each other can extend. Are they only ever capable of platonic love? Romantic love? Could they even be capable of sexual love? And if any of this is even possible, would that love be enough to redeem Thomas when his transgressions inevitably come to light?

The production is brimming over with sincerity and heart, which does a lot to make up for the sadly predictable plot. The filmmakers hit each expected story beat with clockwork regularity, and it saddened me to see the filmmakers take the easiest possible route at every opportunity. Until the very end, when the movie throws an unexpected curveball, hitting us with an ambiguous ending that’s really kind of genius. The open ending puts the movie’s themes in a bold new light, implicitly asking the audience to believe for ourselves that forgiveness and unconditional love are possible.

On a final note, I have to give kudos to the filmmakers’ presentation of food. Everyone loves baked goods, regardless of religion, sexuality, or nationality, and so using food as a metaphor for universal and unconditional love makes all kinds of sense. And the food looks great, too.

The Cakemaker is a good movie. I want to be clear about that. It’s well-acted, elegantly directed, and a very sweet little story about love and redemption. The problem is that while it’s good, it isn’t great. It doesn’t have the emotional or intellectual heft to be something truly unforgettable, especially when the plot is this simplistic. It’s just a light trifle of a film — a perfectly enjoyable trifle, which is clearly what the filmmakers were going for — but that’s not enough to justify the extra time and cost of tracking down such a small and obscure little foreign picture.

If this happens to be playing in your area, I absolutely recommend checking it out. But if it means driving to the one theater in the neighboring state that has it on offer, or if it means waiting another year to find it on DVD or streaming, save your time and money for something else.

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