I am posting this review from the April 1997 issue of VP as part of my celebrating the publication of my new book Jesus Christ Movie Star. This enchanting tale is included in the Christ Figure section of the book. More on how to obtain copies of the book will soon be forthcoming in the ReadtheSpirit newsletter.
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 3
She had no form or comeliness that we should look at her,
And no beauty that we should desire her..”
Isaiah 53:2b, slightly paraphrased
This wonderful visual parable of grace grew out of a trip that German filmmaker Percy Adlon and his wife Eleonore made across the U.S. in 1984. Along Route 66 and I-40 in the Mojave Desert they came across the Bagdad Cafe (a.k.a. “The Sidewinder Cafe). The two worked on a script with Christopher Doherty, and in 1988 Mr. Adlon’s English language film was released, giving us another odd, grace-bearing character fit to join the company of such memorable characters as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously, Eleni, Cool Hand Luke, or Zorba the Greek.
Jasmine (Marine Sagebrecht}, an amply endowed German hausfrau, has apparently had enough of her chauvinistic husband while touring the American Southwest, for when he pulls their car over and they argue, she gets out, takes her suitcase, and starts walking. Leaving a thermos of coffee at the edge of the road, her husband drives away. It is the middle of the Mojave Desert, but Jasmine turns down the offer of a ride from Sal, a black man. He sees the thermos sitting at the edge of the road, so he takes it with him — back to the Bagdad Cafe. The little roadside cafe is run-down looking, as is Brenda, Sal’s perpetually angry wife. She explodes when he admits to forgetting to pick up the part for their broken coffee urn. And when she sees the thermos he has picked up, he honest woman orders him to take it back so that the owner who has lost it can retrieve it. Refusing, Sal is run off by his tin can-throwing wife. Ironically, the unwanted coffee thermos soon becomes a font of grace, providing the brew for several coffee-hungry customers (including Jasmine’s husband who stops by for a moment) — and, like the widow’s jar of meal and cruse of oil in the story of Elijah the prophet, never seeming to run dry.
When the weary and dusty Jasmine shows up and asks for a room at the Cafe, Brenda tries to run her off, too, but the persistent traveler refuses to be turned down. And a good thing it is, for the dowdy German soon begins a transformation, first of the building, and then of the people, that makes the Bagdad Cafe into an oasis of grace drawing crowds of travelers every day into its joyful walls. In the process she herself is transformed from a rather frumpy looking matron into a person of grace aglow with an inner beauty.
Brenda was upset when Jasmine picked up all the castaway oilcans and cleaned the junk out of her office and mopped the cafe floor. And she tries to discourage her boy-crazy teenage daughter Phyllis from visiting Jasmine in her room, but to no avail. Her lay-about son, who sits playing his piano all the time, also is soon taken with their lodger. And most smitten of all is Rudi Cox (Jack Palance, in one of his best roles), a cowboy-attired ex-movie set designer and now resident artist. He paints a series of portraits of Jasmine holding pieces of fruit, each painting becoming a bit more risqué, even as the subject seems to increase in beauty. Jasmine, freed from the constraints of her boorish husband, demonstrates a talent for magic, and soon customers, at first attracted by the newfound neatness of the place, are stopping by for the floorshow, as well as the now well-prepared food. The once forbidding-looking, silent cafe is now a place of warmth and merriment.
Other characters, also, are impacted by the visitor — Eric, a boomerang-throwing backpacker, Cahuenga, the cook, and Debbie, a motel resident who does more than just tattoo the truckers who stop by. The latter finally leaves, declaring, “There’s too much harmony around here!” The harmony, however, is interrupted when the Sheriff, checking Jasmine’s papers, learns that she has no green card, and therefore must return to Germany. Travelers, having heard about Jasmine’s magic, are disappointed when they stop and discover that she has gone, and soon the Cafe is quiet again, until —
The film is sparsely made, at first seemingly as bleak as its desert setting. The odd camera angles and unusual editing immediately tell you that this is a world out of kilter, but things are eventually set right by the irrepressible Jasmine. Compared to most Hollywood films Mr. Adlon’s demands close attention, but viewers are well rewarded for their effort. This is a film you’ll be thinking about days after you first see it, and will enjoy returning to it, both to relive some of its joyful moments, and to discover nuances missed at the first viewing. This is a jewel I really want to share with as many people as possible!