Jasmin (Marianne Sägebrecht) is a middle aged Bavarian woman travelling across America by car with her husband, but they're not getting on too well - in fact, they have just had a major row. Jasmin is left in the middle of nowhere on a desert highway as her husband speeds off, leaving her nothing but her suitcase and her coffee maker, but when he relents and goes back to find her, she hides from him because she's had her fill of his aggressive, boorish ways. This does mean that she has nowhere to go, so she starts to walk until she reaches a diner and motel: The Bagdad Cafe...
German director Percy Adlon and star Marianne Sägebrecht had already garnered a small amount of international recognition with their previous collaboration Zuckerbaby, but it was here that their enduring cult favourite was made. The inclusive tone was something that struck a chord in audiences all over the world, and while some found it oversweet and frankly rambling, many more were delighted by its gentle humour and mix of cultures. Part of that appeal must have been the sense of all of this happening on the fringes of society, as if the whole story took place in some half-recalled dream rather than a solid, prosaic reality.
The hazy photography, mainly in shades of yellow and orange, contributed to that, but so did the manner in which the two main characters overcame their cultural differences to forge a friendship that we can believe would endure for years after the final scene. The other lead was CCH Pounder playing the irascible Brenda, a woman who is permanently dissatisfied with life, living in the cafe with her two children and one grandson, along with a selection of residents at the motel and the staff who assist with the gas station and behind the counter. They all cower before her formidable temper, but early on we see her crying in private and know that she is actually very hurt.
Partly that's due to her husband having had enough of her, much as Jasmin had enough of her partner, and left, so what you have are two lonely souls who would do well to acknowledge the potential for companionship in each other. This being a generous-natured entertainment, that's what happens, but first they have a few hurdles to get over as Brenda becomes very suspicious of this new arrival, who not only has taken one of the rooms, but has - gasp! - cleaned it as well, something that puts Brenda's nose out of joint. So imagine how she feels when Jasmin tidies her office - that's right, she goes ballistic, and it appears their connection will never be made as Jasmin's position is tenuous at best.
However, everyone else at the cafe grows enchanted with the plump Bavarian lady, especially painter Jack Palance, in one of his most charming roles - for this serial villain, many would not have thought he had such a sensitive performance in him. He even sets about painting Jasmin, coaxing her into shedding more and more clothes for his artworks in amusing scenes, as if he has noticed not simply a warm personality, but the beauty in her that her husband forgot about long ago. Soon she is an essential part of the community, small and remote as it is, and has cheered everyone up who comes into contact with her, as if she were some alien from another world who has beneficial effects by her very presence there. It's true that by the end of Bagdad Cafe it is growing self-indulgent, as if it were reluctant to allow these characters to go, yet if you're in generous mood you'll forgive it and appreciate what is a sweet, if insubstantially plotted, film. Music by Bob Telson, including the haunting Calling You song which runs through it.