Golden Oldies: Bagdad Café

As the third part of Tyneside Cinema’s ‘Screening Women’ season, the programmers dug up the little-known magical comedy, Bagdad Café. Simon Ramshaw went to see if it was a damn fine cup of coffee or a barren wasteland of emotion.

Simon Ramshaw
6th March 2017

According to the rules of this column, I’m supposed to talk about how hyped I was for this film. Truth be told, I had not heard a thing about Bagdad Café. All I recognised from it in the very little research I did beforehand was that CCH Pounder was one of the leads, an actress I’m only familiar with through Dennis Reynolds’ uncannily accurate impression in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Yet what a wonderful film Percy Adlon’s strange comedy-drama is to go in blind to. Chronicling the adventures of a German woman who strides off into the Mojave Desert after an argument with her cigar-chomping, hard-drinking husband, it is an often kooky but touching look at a utopian vision where culture, race and gender don’t matter, and anything is possible through the hard work and acceptance of others. Nothing much happens, but there’s a distinct vein of humour and wit that similarly runs through the work of Jim Jarmusch. It’s often the minor incidents that hit the hardest, but Adlon constructs his film with a twinkle of magical realism here and there, leaving the characters with real-world problems with a glint of optimism in their eyes.

Marianne Sägebrecht is fantastic as Jasmine, a woman way out of her depth that manages to command her situation with ease, but it’s CCH Pounder that makes the greatest impression. Modulating throughout the entire film between a raging fireball of pure fury and a lovable matriarch, she’s shrill but relatable, hateful but justified, and she comes off as the most well-rounded of the eccentric cast of characters. Jack Palance provides surprisingly sweet support as the local artist, endowed with silk shirts and fetching bandanas, but it’s the easy and likable demeanour of the ensemble as a whole that makes the film so warm.

"Adlon constructs his film with a twinkle of magical realism here and there, leaving the characters with real-world problems with a glint of optimism in their eyes"

At first, I was sure I was going to have a problem with a ‘white saviour’ reading of the film that is easy to accept on first glance, but when you really look at what the film is saying, that problematic theory becomes irrelevant. Bagdad Café is a film about how people can do whatever they set out to achieve if they attempt to compromise to and understand each other’s ways. Whether you’re black or white, male or female, adult or child, we can all make the world a better place for one another. And in times like these, there’s not a lovelier message than that. 

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