Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:02 pm 
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"Mostly Martha" blends subtle filmmaking with stereotypes

Martha Klein (the lovely Martina Gedeck) is a superb chef in this German movie written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, but she's without intimacy in her life and her precision in the kitchen is matched by uptightness everywhere else. Along comes the death of her sister in a car accident, leaving an eight-year-old daughter, Lina (Maxime Foerste), to complicate and ultimately warm up Martha's life. Lina starts sleeping at Martha's, but won't eat, and has no enthusiasm for school. Martha hopes to find Lina's lost Italian father because she can't figure out how to control Lina or make her enjoy life again.

Then Martha goes back to her kitchen and finds the restaurant owner has hired a second in command to fill in for her, a mellow, flakey Italian artiste (and admirer of her cooking) named Mario (Sergio Castellitto) who's everything she isn't and who soon cons Lina into scarfing spaghetti. (Lina warms to Mario because she wants to find her dad).

"I wish I had a recipe for you," Martha tells Lina. She's so limited she even talks to her shrink about nothing but cooking. Oddly, if humorously, the shrink caves in to this and in a final scene is shown trying out a desert on her made from her recipe. As meticulous as ever, she says it was made with the wrong sugar.

"Mostly Martha" ("Bella Martha") is built out of the cliché contrast between cold Germans and warm Italians and asks us to believe that an Italian can open up a chilly German girl's heart and make her human. This is a feel-good movie about depression, frigidity, and loss. It's moving when one sees the starving, grieving little girl take her first mouthful of pasta and start to smile again, but one knows one's being shamelessly manipulated.

The movie has a glossy look that builds from the severe elegance of the restaurant (called the Lido, which shows an Italian's likely to come in eventually and take over) and the cool beauty of the star, Ms. Gedeck. It gradually modulates into a greater sense of life that comes from seeing lovely food and a grizzled Italian singing. What makes "Mostly Martha" compelling is its subtlety and restraint, the gray light in the immaculate kitchen, Martha's cool yet expressive face. Sandra Nettlebeck knows how to make a story clear without hitting you over the head with its points.

I was reminded of Nanni Moretti's "La stanza del figlio" ("The Son's Room"), which deals with the death of a son and a family's effort to cope with the devastation wrought by it. Here the heroine is really incapable of dealing with the death that has happened otherwise than by going back to work. She's incapable of showing much physical warmth to the little girl. You wonder how this sudden adoption by Martha can be any good for Lina especially when after babysitting fails Martha starts bringing her to the kitchen all evening and the child begins to get to school very late and then skip it altogether. There is the same sense of devastation and confusion as in "La stanza del figlio," in which the psychiatrist father went back to work, but couldn't function any more.

Somehow Mario turns this around. He not only brings Lina out of her shell but he humanizes the reluctant Martha. I suppose this is true to life on some level, that real German women go hunting for Latin lovers on vacation or at home; in fact Lina may have been the fruit of such a union. But it's hard to see it happening in a movie without its seeming ridden with cliches. This is the paradox of "Mostly Martha": it's a subtle, elegant movie whose resolution is a set of cliches.

Despite the nuance and beauty -- not to mention many moments of charming humor -- of "Mostly Martha," it still seems too schematic, its finale too quickly tacked on to make a satisfying movie. Martha remains a paradox. Her specialties are lush items like pigeon with truffles, yet everything about her life is spare and bare. Oddly, in a movie about food, we see a lot of people unable to eat. It's almost too in character that Martha often takes refuge during rush hour in the kitchen by entering the walk-in freezer. As the movie ends, she has left the restaurant and her life is transformed. But the scene with the shrink suggests that she has not changed one wit.

August 24, 2002

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