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Offbeat movie offers some rare screen magic

Despite its exotic-sounding title, ``Bagdad Cafe'' doesn't take place in a faraway land. The setting is a seedy little motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Yet the story is full of unexpected events and unlikely characters, all as varied and surprising as anything in a conventional ``Grand Hotel''-type movie. ``Bagdad Cafe'' is deliberately rude and scruffy. But it has more life and energy than almost any Hollywood picture in sight.

The story begins when a pair of German tourists have a quarrel while driving through the desert. Soon the woman, whose name is Jasmin, grabs her suitcase and trudges away on her own - with nowhere to go but the Bagdad Cafe, a place more accustomed to truckers and hitchhikers than European ladies who don't speak much English.

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She settles in for a long stay. And from the beginning, she and the local inhabitants are totally suspicious of each other - especially when Jasmin bumps up against Brenda, the spunky black woman who runs the caf'e.

Jasmin has a chunky physique, painfully neat habits, and a rather shy personality. Brenda is wiry and cheerfully messy, and hasn't a shy bone in her body. Yet there are similarities between the two women, including the fact that both are on the outs with their menfolk. Jasmin's man disappears from the story quite soon, while Brenda's husband spends almost the whole movie camped out in his car, watching his wife and children through binoculars.

What makes ``Bagdad Cafe'' a warm and life-affirming film is the way its distrustful characters get slowly drawn into each other's lives, until all fear and hostility vanish into thin air.

Part of the credit goes to Jasmin and Brenda themselves, as they come to sympathize with each other's problems. More credit goes to another character: a small-time artist named Rudi Cox, played by Jack Palance.

He falls in love with Jasmin and helps her grow comfortable with life at the Bagdad. Under his influence, she blossoms and comes out of her shell, inspired by a feeling of goodwill that all the characters learn to share. Slowly the caf'e becomes a joyful and even a magical place. The story ends when Rudi proposes marriage to Jasmin, in a celebration of romantic love that's both delicious and delirious.

``Bagdad Cafe'' was made by Percy Adlon, a West German who understands the fringes of American life better than most Hollywood filmmakers. I wouldn't have expected a comedy this exuberant from Adlon after the cool precision of ``Celeste,'' his drama about Marcel Proust, or the hectic farce of ``Sugarbaby,'' his last picture. ``Bagdad Cafe'' is in a different key from either of those movies, but stands nonetheless as Adlon's most successful work to date.

The role of Jasmin is played by Marianne S"agebrecht, who portrayed the corpulent heroine of ``Sugarbaby'' not long ago. The powerful black actress CCH Pounder plays Brenda, and as Rudi there's Hollywood veteran Palance, with a gravelly drawl and a crazy walk that add up to the weirdest (and perhaps the most charming) performance of his career. (Another odd detail of Rudi Cox is the character's name: Is it meant to recall director Alex Cox and writer Rudy Wurlitzer, whose own works sometimes share the proud scruffiness that marks this picture?)

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``Bagdad Cafe'' isn't always in good taste, particularly when Rudi starts painting portraits of Jasmin in progressive stages of undress, nudging the movie to its PG rating. But if you're in the mood for an offbeat movie adventure, this unpretentious byway is in most respects a rewarding place to explore. You won't soon forget it.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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