Despite, or perhaps because of, its position as one of the most polarizing of nations, Israel continues to produce exceptional films, including ones that have nothing to do with the current political situation. "The Cakemaker" is just such a film.
The debut feature of 37-year-old writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer, this provocative, unexpected and finally very moving work is as unusual a love story as you are likely to find.
Culturally specific to its joint Berlin/Jerusalem setting but with themes that are universal, it joins an exploration of sexual fluidity and the nature of love and relationships with a strong plot that keeps you involved and guessing until the very end.
And though its story is inescapably and unapologetically melodramatic, it’s told with such low-key, unforced delicacy and tact (backed up by the quiet piano of Dominique Charpentier's score) that it becomes plausible and convincing right in front of our eyes.
The cakemaker of the title is Thomas (Tim Kalkhof), who runs a cozy little bakery in Berlin, a place that Jerusalem-based city planner Oren (Roy Miller) never fails to visit on his monthly work trips to Germany.
Though Oren is married with a 6-year-old son, he is also having an affair with Thomas, a relationship that gets increasingly serious for both men.
Then, suddenly, Thomas does not hear from Oren. What has happened is worse than he imagines: Oren has died in an accident in Israel, he is never coming back.
"Cakemaker" now switches settings to Jerusalem, where Oren's widow, Anat (Sarah Adler, last seen in the splendid "Foxtrot"), is getting ready to reopen the cafe she owns.
A conversation about kosher certification makes it clear that Anat, though no longer observant herself, is a member of an Orthodox clan. Personified by her brother-in-law Motti (Zohar Strauss), it is a family that still cares strongly about religious rules and regulations.
One day, as Anat listlessly shops in the massive Mahane Yehuda market, we spy someone we recognize: yes, it's Thomas, newly arrived from Germany, and intensely curious about his dead lover's wife.
Thomas shows up at Anat's cafe and strikes up a conversation with her — English is the only language they have in common — but does not let on the connection he had with her late husband.
Instead, Thomas asks for work, and though she does not immediately hire him, one of the film's numerous small contrivances gets him employed to do errands, wash dishes and clean up despite brother-in-law Motti's kneejerk resistance to having a non-Jew, and a German no less, around the premises.
Effectively played by Kalkhof, whose classic blond looks could get him the pick of storm trooper roles in World War II movies, Thomas never verbalizes anything about his presence in Jerusalem to anyone.
But shots of his face, and scenes like a visit to Oren's sports club, tell us without words that he is yearning for a kind of connection to his late lover, that he is so bereft that he's casting about for any way to keep his memories and feelings alive.
Naturally Thomas eventually reveals his gifts as a baker, but even that gets complicated as detailed Orthodox rules about what a non-Jew can and cannot do in a kosher kitchen add unexpected drama to the situation.
Like a patient baker, filmmaker Grazier sees no reason to rush what happens between Thomas and Anat, and these two become key parts of each other's lives so gradually, the acting and directing are so precisely right, that we believe what transpires.
Once "The Cakemaker's" plot kicks in, it’s inevitable that we wonder how long Thomas can keep the past a secret, and what will happen should the the truth come out. The most fascinating kind of tension results, an unusual state of affairs that plays fair with the characters, and with us.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes