At first glance, Thomas doesn't stand out. The young Berliner tends to his customers behind the counter and sells pastries. There's nothing showy about his cinnamon cookies or his, admittedly, visually pleasing black forest cake. At least until his patrons take that first bite. Then they realize there's something mighty special about this soft-spoken baker with the modest boy-next-door looks and one hell of a talent in the kitchen.
Appearances are deceiving when it comes to the titular character of “The Cakemaker,” and the same goes for this deliberately paced German-Israeli co-production. It bears the earmarks of middlebrow Europudding fare, but turns out to be so much more: a delicate dish that lingers long after you've gobbled up the last crumb.
The sugary delights at Kredenz Café keep luring back regular patrons, including Oren. The Jerusalem resident, who works for an urban planning group and finds himself in Berlin often, praises Thomas' gift, enthuses how much his wife likes his cookies. The handsome visitor digs into that delectable cake, looks up and smiles.
An affair follows, portrayed in discreet, fleeting glimpses. If viewers are left wanting to see more, that's by design. A coupling of bodies leads to the ache of separation. Then one day, Oren leaves for the airport and leaves behind his keys and his wife's cookies. Unusual for someone so adept at leading a compartmentalized life.
But Oren doesn't come back. There was an accident back home, Thomas is told at his lover's Berlin office. He didn't make it.
And gradually, with admirable rigor and lack of easy sentimentality, “The Cakemaker” takes you inside Thomas' despair. The film is a lonely stroll on a rainy day, a slow dance with the suffocating chokehold of loss. It takes you places you might not be ready to go. It also invites you to reexamine your own preconceptions about the grieving process, as well as the swinging pendulum of human desire. When entering its tangled web, be patient, and let it digest.
One would think a quiet loner like Thomas would just cope with the pain and move on. Instead, he leaves Berlin and travels to Jerusalem, where Oren's widow, Anat, runs a small cafe. But there's no dramatic confrontation, no tear-streaked yelling. Taking a page from Patricia Highsmith, writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer, here making his feature directing debut, positions his emotionally stunted protagonist as a more benevolent Tom Ripley. He keeps that character's talent for pretense but takes away his calculating yen for murder.
After some hesitation, Anat hires Thomas to help out at the cafe, completely unaware of his connection to her late husband. But Motti, Oren's rigid, territorial brother, smells a rat from the get-go, even as a stressful set of circumstances unearth Thomas' baking abilities.
The rest of “The Cakemaker” retains the character depth that makes this enigmatic portrait so entrancing. It also requires a sizable suspension of disbelief. There's some business with cellphone voicemails that spells out details that could have been more effectively conveyed with the subtlety with which Graizer imbues the rest of his ingeniously constructed screenplay. But these conventional elements are dwarfed by the heft of the characters' arc, and this is where the performances go the extra mile. German TV vet Tim Kalkhof dives into the demanding starring role with sensitivity and a steadfast refusal to provide facile justifications for Thomas' actions. He is matched step by step by the prolific Sarah Adler, fiercely moving as the mourning widow who allows herself to let down her defenses when this quiet baker enters her life. She never strikes a false note, and neither does Roy Miller, whose presence is felt long after Oren is gone.
But the film's unsung hero is Sandra Sade, who makes a lasting impression in the small but far from minor role of Hanna, Oren's mother. Even though she only appears in a handful of scenes, she is able to hone maternal instinct in order to create an affecting study in unconditional acceptance. “The Cakemaker” is a stronger, more resonant film with her in it.
“The Cakemaker” walked away with the Critics Prize at this year's Miami Jewish Film Festival. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the jury, and I can report Graizer's film prevailed amid a tough, contested field of worthy contenders.) It speaks to this understated drama's staying power that I saw it back in January, yet it feels as immediate to me as if I'd seen it a week ago. Yes, it tells the tale of a stalker's misguided efforts to hold on to a loved one's essence. But what may have initially come across as creepy and inappropriate now feels, with the passage of time, like the most romantic story I've seen at the movies this year.
Ofir Raul Graizer's “The Cakemaker” is now showing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, as well as Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and Living Room Theatres FAU in Boca Raton. It's scheduled to open July 20 at the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.