Pastry dough is far from the only thing that requires — and duly receives — delicate handling in “The Cakemaker,” a tender, tactile and just-sweet-enough story of hidden love, challenged faith and unwittingly shared grief that marks an auspicious feature debut for Israeli writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer. Tracing with exemplary sensitivity the unlikely bond formed between a gay German baker and the Jerusalem-based widow of the man they both loved, Graizer’s film works a complex range of social and religious tensions into its heartsore narrative, without ever feeling sanctimonious or button-pushing. This moving, broadly accessible blend of old-school melodrama, contemporary identity politics and buttery gastroporn should sell like, well, hotcakes on the international festival circuit following its Karlovy Vary premiere — with LGBT-oriented distributors hungry for a crossover hit first in line.
With its soft lighting, prettily wistful piano-based score and enough lingering images of onscreen patisserie to make Mary Berry unpurse her lips and drool, “The Cakemaker” might look from the outside like a purely crowd-pleasing confection — but it’s far from fondant-centered, refusing to sentimentalize or patly resolve the tricky matters of the heart that bind its unhappy characters. Graizer’s script treats them (and, by extension, the audience) like adults, observing moral errors on all sides, with empathy for everyone’s particular strain of pain. It’s also an unusual story of same-sex romance that acknowledges the fluidity of sexuality and desire, particularly in light of emotional need; love takes a variety of shapes here, none more pure than any other.
For Thomas (Tim Kalkhof), the lonely young dough maestro of the title, it arrives particularly unexpectedly, and is taken away with equally scant warning. When Israeli businessman Oren (Roy Miller) walks into the cozy Berlin cafe where Thomas plies his trade, the soul connection between the two is immediate. With Oren making monthly work trips from Jerusalem, the two men swiftly set up part-time house together — with only the cinnamon cookies baked by Thomas, and gifted by Oren to his oblivious wife and child, traversing the two halves of a double life. When Oren is killed in a car accident in Jerusalem a few months later, however, Thomas is left in psychological limbo; seeking some manner of closure, he packs his bags and buys a one-way ticket to his lover’s hometown.
There, he walks straight into the little-frequented cafe managed by Oren’s stricken widow Anat (a wonderful, careworn Sarah Adler), wrangling a menial kitchen job. His duties expand once his impressive flour powers become apparent, making a swift success of the formerly struggling business. What might seem to some a cruelly underhand move — Thomas reveals nothing of his acquaintance with Oren — turns out to have ambiguous, complicated emotional undercurrents: By helping the family of his beloved, is the taciturn German performing a curious kind of penance, or simply finding another way to stay close to him? And as Anat begins quietly falling for the decidedly non-kosher outsider, does the truth matter if he can provide her comfort alongside a killer black forest gâteau?
Graizer and his fine actors consider such nuanced questions with grace, intelligence and a consistent avoidance of judgment, letting their characters’ fears and foibles emerge without need for blunt exposition — while permitting them some secrets even from the audience. Thomas’s shy sexuality, in particular, is probed with compassionate reserve by Graizer and the excellent Kalkhof, a still, sturdy physical performer whose limpid long-distance gaze carries much of the film’s unspoken hurt. It’s not clear how out, proud or even active Thomas was before meeting Oren, or whether he’s fully in command of the desirous gaze that the camera accords him in passing scenes of Jerusalem street life.
The extent of Oren’s experience with other men is likewise left out of the picture, though his kindly mother Hanna (Sandra Sade) may or may not know more than she lets on. The stringent Judaism practiced by her other son Motti (Zohar Strauss) — and lately pressed on the agnostic Anat — hints at the culture wars that Oren was so eager to escape in Berlin, though Motti is no villain either. Conflict in “The Cakemaker” derives less from malice than from separate ways of life drifting intractably and poignantly away from one another. Food isn’t merely an ornamental aside to the narrative, but a key way of both marking and bridging such divides: Motti is suspicious of Thomas’s European-inspired baking, but also aggrieved that the foreigner should spend Shabbat eating alone.
Cinematographer Omri Aloni shoots some of the baking scenes in a dreamy twilit haze practically akin to the pottery scene in “Ghost”: Most of us, it’s fair to say, have never looked quite so sexy or serene while working with yeast. Yet such romanticization aptly reflects Thomas’s own state of reverie in the kitchen — the one space, after all, where he feels confidently, capably himself — in contrast to the film’s muted, silver-shadowed naturalism elsewhere. The piercing piano motifs of French multi-instrumentalist Dominique Charpentier’s lovely score, meanwhile, never stray into saccharine territory. It’s but one typical element (or, if you will, ingredient) of the restrained classicism at work throughout “The Cakemaker” — reliant, like all the best traditional baking, on an intuitive human touch.