Bagdad Café is a 1987 film by German director Percy Adlon. It tells the story of the inhabitants of an isolated truck stop/motel in the southern California desert, and the German tourist who unexpectedly finds herself stranded there.
The proprietress of this cafe is Brenda (CCH Pounder), a perpetually angry African-American woman on the edge of desperation who, in addition to managing the cafe and motel, has two teenage children and a grandbaby to look after. Brenda is the only one connected with this enterprise who is not content simply to let things go their own way. She fights endlessly with her husband, who takes a much more relaxed view of things than she does, and who decides finally that the safest course for him is to leave.
The motel is also home to Rudi (Jack Palance), a one-time Hollywood set painter, Debby (Christine Kaufmann), a popular tattoo artist, and Cahuenga (George Aquilar), a short-order cook. Into this diverse mix of characters wanders Jasmine Münchgstettner (Marianne Sägebrecht), a German tourist on vacation with her husband. They have just quarreled for the last time, after which he headed one way in the rented Lincoln while she headed the other way on foot, pulling her luggage behind her.
In due time Jasmine finds herself at the Bagdad Gas and Oil Cafe, where, to Brenda’s surprise, she takes a room. Jasmine understands immediately that she is needed there, and at this point, being needed happens to be what Jasmine needs the most. She decides to stay awhile, and for the rest of the movie, we watch as she is integrated into this unlikely family and how, ultimately, one person’s strengths dovetail with someone else’s needs.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this movie is how much we come to care about these people and how quickly we are drawn into their world. Credit for this must go to Marianne Sägebrecht, CCH Pounder, and Jack Palance for their first-rate performances throughout. Even more must go to writer/director Percy Adlon and his wife and writing partner Eleonore, who understand that great cinema does not depend on spectacle, but on finding and exploring situations in which their audience can relate to their characters.
I’m tempted to recommend this movie to everyone, but in fact there are themes here that are beyond the understanding of most pre-teens. To everyone else I say, put Bagdad Café at the top of your “must see” list.