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'Bagdad Cafe'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 06, 1988

 


Director:
Percy Adlon
Cast:
Marianne Sagebrecht;
C.C.H. Pounder;
Jack Palance
PG
nudity


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Frau Muenchstettner was born to scrub. She is an artist with a Hoover, the type of woman who understands why they'd name a dishwashing liquid Joy. Though West German and a tourist, she knows that the way to an American family's heart is through whiter whites and brighter brights -- even if that family is living in the last bastion of true grit, The West.

Marianne Sa gebrecht of Munich's avant-garde cinema is the unlikely heroine of Percy Adlon's first English-language film, "Bagdad Cafe," a gingerly, happy little fable about a Mojave Desert oasis run dry. With its foibles and quirks, it's something like a Sam Shepard play by way of the Black Forest.

Bagdad is just a spot on the map, a dilapidated cafe' with a motel out back and a gas pump out front. Under the sick lemon sun dwells a tiny, improbably ethnic population. CCH Pounder plays the irascible black matriarch Brenda, who manages two kids, a dreamy husband and the run-down complex. They share the place with a native American short-order cook (George Aquilar), a tattoo artist (Christine Kaufmann) and a mellow primitive artist (Jack Palance). It's definitely a foreigner's idea of the nation's disparate human landscape. Adlon even throws in a rainbow.

All these strange folks are in a funk, their spirits broken like the cafe''s coffee maker. And then along comes the first sign of magic: a Bavarian thermos that is perpetually full of coffee. Brenda's husband finds it abandoned on the highway along with the weeping Jasmin Muenchstettner, who nervously refuses a ride. Jasmin, who has just split with her husband, arrives at the cafe' hours later, and only slightly disheveled. Coincidentally, Brenda has just told her husband to get lost. They are two women sleeping single.

They also couldn't be more different in color, shape, culture and temperament. Brenda, meaner than cactus quills, takes an instant dislike to the Lane Bryant-sized, sweet-natured Jasmin. But after a lot of cleaning and cajoling, Jasmin wins the trust of the skinnier woman. The polar personalities propel the story, but there's something condescending about an Aryan Mary Poppins dropping by to save a black family from debt and despair. Nevertheless, it's a winning story of friendship, extended family and rediscovered femininity.

As in "Sugarbaby," which also starred Sa gebrecht, Adlon's heroines are happiest when they find the yen within -- when they're nurturing and being nice. They enjoy being girls, as it were. Here, Jasmin strips away her dowdy Bavarian manner along with her thick wool suit and discovers she is not just a middle-aged hausfrau, eventually posing nude with a split cantaloupe for the artist Rudi Cox (Jack Palance).

Her Windex-blue eyes shining, she also wipes away the layers of grime at the cafe'. And voila`, Brenda's sunny side begins to emerge. She no longer sees Jasmin as a threat, but accepts her for what she is, a woman as generous of spirit as she is of body. The two women begin to work together, the cafe' flourishes, and Brenda begins to smile again and love her kids. There's beer and Coke and coffee and plenty of customers at the Bagdad Cafe, drawn by the ladies and the actual magic they've learned to perform.

The movie does seem to have been pulled from a hat, a series of surprises tossed off by Adlon and his producer wife Eleonore. The script grew out of the couple's 1984 trip across the United States. Barstow, Calif., reminded them of purgatory. And of course, "Bagdad Cafe" is all about escape from limbo.

Sa gebrecht, who redefined sex appeal in "Sugarbaby," is the most alluring full-figured girl since Jane Russell. She is an understated actress in an overstated body, enjoyable precisely because she is so peaceful and sweet. Like the rest of the cast, she was chosen for her eccentric style. It's rather like the characters from "Sesame Street" doing an anal-compulsive western.

Bagdad Cafe is playing at the West End and is rated R for nudity.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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