Berlinale 2024 review: 'My Favourite Cake' - a poignant and gently subversive Iranian masterpiece

My Favourite Cake
My Favourite Cake Copyright Berlin Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
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A masterful Iranian tragicomedy that stands as an early contender for this year's Golden Bear.

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Iranian directors Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha are no strangers to the Berlin Film Festival, as their stunning film Ballad of a White Cow premiered at the 2021 Berlinale. This year, however, their new collaborative effort, My Favourite Cake, screens without them in attendance.

The filmmaking duo have been banned from traveling by Iranian authorities and have had their passports confiscated. They are also facing a court trial “in relation to their work as artists and filmmakers.”

And what filmmakers they are, as it’s going to take quite the film to dethrone My Favourite Cake as an early favourite for this year’s Golden Bear.

The film follows lonely septuagenarian widow Mahin (Lily Farhadpour), who sleeps in ‘til noon, waters her plants, and goes grocery shopping for luncheon get-togethers with her “old gal” pals. After one such lunch, during which the women debate the utility of marriage and men, Mahin decides to reconnect with the lost freedoms of her youth, now obliterated in an unrecognizable Iran. She yearns to embrace a new shot at happiness and foster a meaningful connection, having lost her husband 30 years ago. 

She finds it when she overhears a conversation at a pensioners’ restaurant and sets her sights on divorced taxi driver Faramarz (Esmaeil Mehrabi). She impulsively follows him to the taxi stand where he works and insists he drive her home, brazenly inviting him to spend a stolen evening with her. 

While the touching connection between them deepens over food and wine, and their giddiness is emboldened by a palpable sense of hope, hope is a dangerous and very fragile thing in Iran...

Shot (mostly in secret) around the same time as the Woman, Life, Freedom protests broke out nationwide, My Favourite Cake is a lot more critical of the Iranian regime than its story initially seems to suggest. It stirred up controversy because it shows a woman not wearing the mandatory hijab, people drinking alcohol and dancing, but also includes a few potent digs at the morality police.

For instance, in her quest to get out there, Mahin takes a stroll in a local park, where she sees the morality police trying to arrest a young woman for not wearing her hijab properly.

“You kill them over a few strands of hair?,” responds Mahin, a direct reference for audience members to Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested.

When she does manage to save the young woman (and avoid being arrested herself for the same crime), Mahin tells her: “You have to stand up for yourself” – a message of empowerment that cannot be tolerated under the nation’s repressive regime.

My Favourite Cake fizzles with the daring energy of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, even if it is nestled within a romantic tragicomedy that takes a turn for the Linklater-ish in the second half. It is driven by two magnificent performances from Farhadpour and Mehrabi, whose kind faces and joint chemistry make the evening both Mahin and Faramarz share crackle with comedy, joy and poignancy. One scene even sees the tipsy wooers inadvertently recreate a scene from Casino Royale.

But a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts. 

The suddenly-dramatic-for-some / gradually-telegraphed-for-others tonal shift won’t sit well with everyone, but it leads to a succinct epilogue and reveals the title’s allegorical dimension (beyond the baking of a frankly tastebud-teasing orange-blossom gateau). By turning the evening’s festivities from joyful to tragic, Moghaddam and Sanaeeh reveal quite how masterfully they’ve set up a subtle but powerful commentary about the harsh realities Iranian women face, and what could befall those daring to take control of their lives and destinies.

By showing Iranian women as human beings (let that start of a sentence sit with you), the directors have crossed what they’ve referred to as the Iranian rule’s “red lines.” 

We’re fortunate to have filmmakers who dare to challenge oppression, as well as film festivals that programme their work. And beyond the socio-political context of the film – which may lead some to cynically suggest that any Bear win come festival-end limits itself to an act of supporting artistic defiance – Moghaddam and Sanaeeh have served up a gently poignant masterpiece, full of heart, about the burial of hope in a place where it currently cannot grow.

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