A man in a bakery café in Berlin sits in front of a gorgeous slice of Black Forest chocolate cake. Oren is an Israeli who works for a German/Israeli company. In close-up, Oren’s fork moves slowly down through the cake to dislodge a bite-sized piece. It’s a luscious slide through the layers of cream and chocolate, followed by another, and soon the face of the satisfied Oren. This must be the most wonderful piece of cake in the history of the movies.
It’s also key to the film. The Cakemaker is full of sensual closeups – mostly of faces in awkward moments with hints of desire. The hands of Thomas the baker (Tim Kalkof) are soft, like his face; they handle the dough with sure, delectable motions, and you can watch the dough take shape and substance. The genius of The Cakemaker, the first feature from Israeli director Ofir Raul Graizer, lives in his embrace of intimacy; his movie is unafraid of the feelings and the uncertainties of his characters.
Oren (Roy Miller) likes the cookies and loves that cake, just as he has taken more than a shine to Thomas. Oren has a wife and son in Jerusalem, but he and Thomas fall in love. It’s convenient for Oren to have two lives – there’s no chance that Thomas and Oren’s wife Anat (Sarah Adler) will bump into each other, he may think.
Back in Jerusalem, Oren dies when he’s hit by a car, which leaves Anat and Thomas separately devastated. In his grief, Thomas goes to Jerusalem, watches Anat as she opens a cafe, and gets her to hire him to wash dishes. Of course, he manages to bake something one morning, and because Anat has viable taste buds, she slowly lets Thomas do more and more baking, and the cafe draws more and more patrons, who love the cookies, the cakes and the fruit tarts. Be prepared to be hungry.
But there’s more to The Cakemaker than the food. It’s a complicated situation. You wonder if Thomas is some kind of creep. He’s a quiet man. He expresses plenty through his baking, but mostly doesn’t know what to say. Anat is trying to figure out her life as a single mother starting a business. Awkward silences dominate the film – they leave the kind of open spaces that make you wonder and speculate and consider. The only talker in the movie is Oren’s brother Motti. He’s a religious zealot who talks too much and pushes religion on Anat and her son.
Anat is a secular woman, but in Jerusalem, religion has a lot of clout. She needs a certificate that her cafe is kosher, and Motti, who has something to do with that, doesn’t like the presence of her German, non-Jewish baker – because he’s not Jewish, and because he’s German, which is still an issue.
Anat and Thomas make their situation even dicier, as you might expect, because they start to notice each other, in a hesitant way that goes beyond boss and baker. Anat then has to deal with the improprieties that Thomas is not Jewish and she’s a widow and his employer. We in the theater, along with Thomas, know that he’s gay; Anat does not – so how can all that resolve?
Except for Motti, The Cakemaker isn’t interested in villains, and he’s not much of a villain. The picture shows people in circumstances that can be trying, but also sweet and gracious. The film’s a vision of the struggle between custom, morality, ethics, personality and the randomness of human desire.
One thing missing, though, may be the complexities of Israeli society. Characters are all Jews of European background – no Moroccan, Yemini or African Jews, so no one of darker skin. And no Palestinians. Is this a comment on Israeli life, a blindness in the film, or maybe a picture of how Israeli life in Jerusalem can be thoroughly segregated? I don’t know.