There’s much to admire in Israeli writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer’s debut feature, but “The Cakemaker” is an uneven film, intriguingly offbeat and textured but also opaque and emotionally distant.
The titular character is Thomas (Tim Kalkhof), a Berlin baker who, as he will eventually reveal, was orphaned at a young age, growing up with his grandmother. He runs a small shop where his specialty cakes and cookies have become a favorite with Oren (Roy Miller), an Israeli man who often visits Germany on business. On one stop for the cinnamon cookies his wife enjoys, Oren asks Thomas for help in choosing a birthday gift for his four-year old son, and Thomas agrees to take him to a place that sells hand-made train sets.
Without further ado the two men are romantically involved, though we see only a brief glimpse of the time they regularly spend together in Thomas’ apartment. After one stay, Oren leaves for home, forgetting his keys and the cinnamon cookies, and when Thomas tries to call his lover about it, he finds that Oren’s phone is out of service. Going to Oren’s employer, Thomas learns that he has died—in, we later learn, a car crash.
Thomas then shows up in Jerusalem, where he finds the tiny café run by Oren’s widow Anat (Sarah Adler). He becomes a regular there, and Anat, who finds keeping the place going while caring for her son Itai (Tamir Ben Yehuda) a difficult juggling act, asks him whether he’d like a job. Naturally he accepts. He also uses Oren’s keys to access his locker at the local pool, where he finds a pair of the dead man’s swimming trunks and uses them himself. He also gradually gains the trust of Oren’s brother Motti (Zohar Strauss), who offers him an apartment, as well as kindness from his mother Hanna (Sandra Sade).
Most importantly, Thomas grows closer to Anat, particularly after he begins baking cookies and cakes that turn the café into a prosperous place. He begins to teach her the tricks of his trade, and eventually they have a passionate engagement in the kitchen. Itai begins opening up to him as well. Inevitably the truth about his prior relationship with Oren will come out, with results that are perhaps too predictable, though Graizer couches the ultimate outcome in ambiguity.
It’s fairly clear that for stiff, reserved Thomas, his Jerusalem experience is an attempt to recapture his closeness to Oren by effectively making his dead lover’s life his own by replicating even Oren’s lovemaking with Anat, down to the details of their lovemaking the dead man described to him. But Graizer layers other elements into the narrative. One is the matter of religious divergence. Motti—and Hanna too—are orthodox, and their practices are reinforced by the calls to Shabbat that echo each week through the streets. Anat, on the other hand, is agnostic, irritated by Motti’s efforts to influence Itai. But she must also be concerned with maintaining the kosher certificate issued for her shop by officials, without which her business might collapse; and Thomas’ cooking could endanger the café’s kosher status.
Another theme is the still tense feelings of Jews toward Germans. It is explicitly seen in Motti’s initial reaction to Anat’s hiring of Thomas. Yet in time Motti invites Thomas to attend Shabbat with the family, because, he observes, one ought not to eat alone on that day.
Graizer does not succeed in linking these various threads together into a perfectly integrated whole, nor is each of them treated as equal insight. But he, cinematographer Omri Aloni and editor Michel Oppenheim collaborate to create an elegant, refined film in which the strands reflect enigmatically upon each other. And Dominique Charpentier contributes a spare score that adds a further note of gentle rumination to the visuals.
Meanwhile, Kalkhof’s impassivity contrasts with Adler’s volatility, and the rest of the cast add incisive touches, with Sade’s melancholy striking an especially strong chord.
Like Thomas’ confections, “The Cakemaker” is a delicate thing that won’t appeal to all tastes. But if you’re willing to surrender yourself to its unusual vibe, you may find that it quietly builds a substantial effect.