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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review: Mostly Martha (2001)

* * *

Director: Sandra Nettlebeck
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste, Sergio Castellito

When compared to their American counterparts, European filmmakers tend to be praised for their unconventionality and creativity, for their work not seeming as if it’s coming off an assembly line. In truth, European films can be just as formulaic as American ones and I offer Sandra Nettlebeck's Mostly Martha as Exhibit A. Luckily the film is charming enough to overcome the slight hurdle of narrative deja vu, but its abundance of narrative clich├ęs keeps it from being anything more than a minor achievement.

Martina Gedeck stars as the eponymous character, a German chef with an extremely prickly demeanour – so prickly, in fact, that her boss requires her to attend therapy. When her sister is killed in an accident, Martha is left to care for her eight-year-old niece Lina (Maxime Foerste), whose grief manifests itself in both silence and a refusal to eat. Back at the restaurant, the owner has hired Mario (Sergio Castellito), a new sous chef, whose presence immediately sets Martha off. For one thing, she and the owner had an agreement that she would get to hire everyone in the kitchen. For another, she feels threatened by Mario’s abilities as well as the fact that everyone seems to love him. It isn’t until Mario is able to break through to Lina that Martha begins to soften towards him.

Things remain tense between Martha and Lina who, in the absence of her mother, has become fixated on the idea of finding the father she has never known. All she and Martha know about him is his name and that he’s from Italy, but Martha promises to find him so that Lina can at least have one parent. The closer that promise comes to realization, however, the more Martha and Lina and Mario start to become a family, making the inevitable break all the more painful and traumatic.

Because the plot is so achingly predictable, Mostly Martha is a film that lives and dies by its performances. Gedeck is wonderful as Martha, a complex and not always likeable character. It is to Nettlebeck's credit that Martha's rougher edges aren't softened and that she's allowed to remain a difficult character right through to the end. Her rigidness is part of her strange charm, balanced through Gedeck's performance with an intense vulnerability. Lina is characterized in much the same way, as a wounded person creating a hard shell around herself, and Foerste's performance is similarly strong and surprisingly nuanced given that she was only about 9 when the film was made. The performances hold your attention even when the story is spinning its wheels.

Mostly Martha was remade in 2007 as No Reservations and starred Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead role. I've never seen the remake but if it adheres faithfully to the original, I would be curious to see how it deals with the long lost father part of the plot. Maybe it's just me, but it seemed kind of strange how everyone was so blase about what would happen when/if Lina's father was found. Everyone just sort of takes it for granted that he'll take Lina back to Italy to live with him, even though he's a total stranger. Does that seem odd to anyone else? I mean, yes, he's her father (and I'm actually still a bit unclear as to how Martha found him) but they know nothing about him and if he's so easy to find but Lina's mother never bothered to contact him, maybe there's a reason? I don't know why it bothers me so much but the more the film progressed, the more fixated I became about this. Rest assured, though, that it all works out in the end - I bet you can even guess how.

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