If you've ever had the pleasure of seeing a TV segment by the late Huell Howser, you might believe Huell's take on any given topic might be as strange as it could get. One of his most memorable segments took place at the Bagdad Café, located in the California ghost town of Bagdad. Howser's seemingly impromptu interview segment revealed a few colorful regulars as well as a mysterious painting of Burt Lancaster on the wall that captivated Howser's nearly childlike wonder. The precipitating factor for doing a segment on the Bagdad Café was its use as the locale in the 1987 film of the same title. Do yourself a favor and go watch the Huell Howser segment and then come back; I guarantee, what you see there is far more sensible and grounded in reality than what this curious, independent film has to offer.
Co-written and directed by Percy Adlon, "Bagdad Café" or "Out of Rosenheim" as it was known outside the US, is the German filmmakers first English language film. Beginning with a surreal and somewhat ominous opening sequence where our film's lead protagonist, Jasmin Münchgstettner (Marianne Sägebrecht) leaves her boorish husband for reasons unknown, before stumbling across the titular locale and its collection of colorful denizens, viewers are thrown into an in medias res, situation; we know absolutely no critical details about Jasmin nor why she chose to leave her husband, or why she's in a small Californian desert town in the first place, nor do we know much about the people who make up the community of the Bagdad Café, which in the film, also features a small, decrepit motel. Adlon's script seems incredibly sparse, but this disorienting sense allows us to share in Jasmin's plight, even if she's a stranger to us for most of the film's runtime.
As the film progresses and we learn of the other characters, namely the café/motel's hardworking, beleaguered owner, Brenda (C.C.H. Pounder), and a fancifully dressed, smooth-talker, Rudi Coxx (Jack Palance), we quickly discover the details are not the intention of "Bagdad Café," it's all about atmosphere and the raw concept of human interaction. Unfortunately, at a base level, the film's screenplay feels very one-dimensional; the only cues that the film is more than a poorly written avant-garde exercise are the film's exquisite, stylized cinematography and the Oscar nominated song "Calling You" that is used to great effect in a few tonal montages. The film relies almost entirely on audience inference as Jasmin and Brenda form a friendship, despite the latter's inherent hostility. We see both women grow through their actions, not words and eventually, in the case of Jasmin, a curious relationship with Coxx sets up a third act with too much to tie-up.
The third act of the film is a real letdown as Adlon's film trots out a few obvious clichés, including a well-meaning, but hackneyed musical number. The film does remain true to asking viewers to infer intent, right down to the final scene, which carries tremendous emotional resonance and is a shockingly bold choice. The performances ultimately come out shining brighter than any element in the film, with both actresses delivering incredibly humane performances of starkly contrasting personalities. Sägebrecht in particular does a lot of expressive acting and the change in her character's physical appearance coincides with the evolution in her personality. From a minor historical perspective, Palance's performance marks a departure from a long career in the Western genre, and may very well be the catalyst into his later, career defining performance in "City Slickers."
While the film has been seemingly forgotten in time, shortly after its release it did find its way to television screens in the form of a ABC sitcom that is cringe worthy from a sheer conceptual standing. "Bagdad Café" is by no means a conventional film, nor a highly accessible one. It would be incredibly simple (and I might even say slightly justified) to claim the film is a tad self-indulgent or fixated on its quirk, but the stripped down script and visual appeal that dabbles in the surreal offer a heartfelt message of finding oneself while making honest connections to others.
The film's 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a bit rough around the edges. Colors are overly saturated, more evident in sequences where primary color filters are used to convey specific feelings. There's a bit of bleeding under scrutiny and overall, the clarify of the colors feel a bit on the unnatural side (whether intentional or not). There is moderate to heavy digital noise/grain from start to finish, while detail average to above average.
The Dolby Digital English stereo soundtrack is quite clean and clear, although there's not a tremendous amount of low-end life to the film's aural presentation. From a balance standing, everything is well mixed and appropriately natural. One highlight is the film's stunning theme, "Calling You" which is nicely reproduced here, perhaps better than anything else.
While the film's technical presentation isn't as strong as one might hope, especially for a visually intense film as this, "Bagdad Café" is still worth checking out. While definitely more avant-garde than straightforward, the film is not wholly inaccessible to an unsuspecting audience and at the very least, it plays well as a slice-of-life story enhanced by artistic flourishes. Recommended.