“The Cakemaker” review Israeli-German film is slow, intimate, but ultimately too disconnecting

Definitely not a film to turn heads or rake in the box office numbers, “The Cakemaker” is a quiet and intimate film that is thought-provoking at the very least. It’s a harrowing, emotionally complex, and difficult story: a German baker named Thomas (Tim Kalkof) has an affair with a married Israeli man, Owen (Roy Miller), and when Owen winds up dead in a car crash, Thomas flies to Israel to…comfort his wife? Make amends? Reveal himself? Thomas himself never seems to be sure, and neither is the audience, but that’s a disconnect needed for such an undemanding film. It allows the story to flow generously, as the script touches on issues like religious authority, gender fluidity, and the desperate lengths people go in the supposed name of love. If only the ending was better…

Of course I won’t give the ending away, but the most I can warn you is that director Ofir Raul Graizer opts for an open and cliche conclusion – one that invites more speculation than discussion. It almost makes the entire journey feel worthless, because we’re left wanting more and wondering what happens next. It’s not the cathartic experience you would expect from a complex love story.

However, until the final disappointing minutes, “The Cakemaker” has a few sweet spots to savor. The first is its handling of intense and taboo themes, especially for an Israeli film. The first involves Orthodox Judaism; Anat (Sarah Adler), the Jewish cafe owner, doesn’t seem to care about keeping her restaurant up to Kosher standards. She hires Thomas (a German) who eagerly uses the oven to bake pastries (a violation of Kosher dietary laws), and when her brother confronts her, she tells him plainly that she isn’t religious or interested in following the rules. That applies to her young son as well. What’s most interesting is that Anat is painted as neither hero nor villain in this debate. One could applaud her for yearning for freedom, yet she is being careless as a business owner within a specific culture.

Piggy-backing off of this debate of religious authority is the concept of fluid sexuality. Many LGBT films work from this angle, and it’s never been a concept I’ve found workable because of how easy it is to abuse. However, I applaud “The Cakemaker” for handling it in a (mostly) tasteful fashion and simply using it as an avenue for the intimate love story at its core. Again, without giving too much away, Thomas and Anat’s relationship walks into sexual territory with precaution, and we the audience are meant to analyze their feelings and motives. Is it genuine love? Longing for intimacy? Are one (or both) of them guilty? And let’s not forget that a possible romance between an Israeli and German would create trouble in the tight-knit community that Anat lives in, especially if the German was sleeping with her late husband.

Though the story starts with Thomas, and Tim Kalkof is a convincing actor, Anat becomes the more complex character at the heart of “The Cakemaker.” Her rejection of religion yet vulnerable position makes her a fascinating character study, and Sarah Adler nails the role with subtle perfection. She’s captivating from her very first scene, and ignites the chemistry with Kalkof effortlessly. If “The Cakemaker” gets attention come awards season, Adler should hopefully see some supporting actress nominations come her way.

Sarah Adler (left) shines in “The Cakemaker,” where Tim Kalkof meets her after her husband’s death.

Speaking of Adler’s subtlety, it is that which helps “The Cakemaker” move along as a deeply intimate film. Dim lighting and pale color palettes are muted by Thomas’ colorful concoctions, as well as his cheerful interactions with Anat and her son. Multiple long takes in these types of situations help capture explicit intimacy, even when romance is involved. Ironically though, there are a few brief flashbacks to Thomas and Oren’s relationship that leave little to the imagination, so disruptive that they create a disconnect with the audience and even demolish some of the earlier intimacy. When we first see Thomas with Oren, all we are shown are Terrence Malick-esque glances and touches. Later in the film, flashbacks seek to shock us with borderline soft-core porn (albeit very brief). Something doesn’t match up well.

These disconnecting moments don’t hurt the film too much, as the bulk of the film needs to focus on fluid sexuality to get its point across. It’s the predictable ending that really damages “The Cakemaker.” It’s not often that the last few minutes of a movie are enough to make the last 90 minutes feel like “all for naught,” but unfortunately that is the one negative thing I have to say about this film – and it’s a crucial one.

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