In Martha's enchanted kitchen, a recipe for passion is starting to simmer.
Studios must hate getting films like Mostly Martha. They can't just say "Hey, this is really good, you should check it out." They have to pitch it somehow. Like Water For Chocolate meets The Professional meets As Good as it Gets…hmm. If you take Leon and turn him into a neurotic chef, you're getting close. The truth is, this film hops out of any pigeon hole you might force it into. (Speaking of pigeons, the secret to truly succulent squab is to find a fat one so it doesn't dry out.) Best to just sit back and enjoy Mostly Martha for its unique spark of cinematic warmth.
Facts of the Case
This tale is firmly centered on Martha. She shouldn't deserve our warm regards, this joyless workaholic who rules her kitchen with a thin temper and an iron will. Those who irk her gain no quarter, and are likely to have their food dumped in their laps rather than recooked. Like an ant, she follows a line from work to home to work to home. She is focused, brilliant, and obsessive about cuisine.
The owner of the restaurant makes her continued employment contingent upon therapy. She dutifully attends sessions, where she prepares meals for her therapist. When he asks why she is in therapy, she blithely professes ignorance and discusses the finer points of gourmet cooking.
Martha's sense of order is about to be disrupted. Two unlikely newcomers enter the temple of her kitchen: another chef and a little girl. To deal with these threats, Martha has to bend a little and focus on something more personal than foie gras.
Since this whole film centers around Martha, it's a good thing that Martina Gedeck is such a compelling actress. Most neurotics are played with a tinge of alienation that prevents true viewer acceptance. Gedeck's Martha manages to shock us with her eccentric interpersonal dynamic while simultaneously charming us. The breadth and depth of her portrayal is reason enough to watch Mostly Martha. She summons fire, chill, warmth, coolness, irony, and poignancy with equal grace. What if I told you she throws raw meat on the table, slaps a little girl, and makes a pregnant woman slave over a hot stove, but you love her anyway? The story is told in such a way that you root for her idiosyncrasies to triumph, even the unhealthy ones.
Gedeck's sublime acting is equaled in the visual language of the film. Compositions and sets are milked for symbolic potential. Whenever Lina (Martha's eight-year-old albatross) rides in the car, she hops in the back seat and crosses her arms. This small act of defiance works on a literal level, establishing the stubborn conflict between the two. It also works on a visual level, suggesting emotional distance. Another symbol is the freezer in Martha's kitchen. The kitchen itself is light, warm, frenetic, and stressful. Whenever the pressures threaten Martha, she retreats to the solitude of the freezer. Visually, the cool palette of the freezer is a sharp contrast to the stressful, warm humanity of the kitchen. Symbolically, the freezer is a telling comment on Martha's emotional state.
Sometimes visuals exist for the sheer spectacle. The sumptuous "cuisine cinematography" is a visual feast. Beware, you may crave a very expensive meal after watching this film. While you're enjoying your Pheasant Roulade with Artichoke-Spinach Puree, pop in the soundtrack to Mostly Martha. These songs ooze sophistication and elegance. The soundtrack is a seamless fit to the film, enhancing the scenes and pouring culture directly into our ears.
Martina Gedeck is not the only standout in Mostly Martha. Sergio Castellitto portrays Mario with such zest that you are uplifted when he is onscreen. His persistence, charm, and love for life brighten the precise drudgery of Martha's kitchen. Maxime Foerste could easily have lapsed into sullen brattiness in her portrayal of Lina. But like Gedeck, we love her in spite of her unflattering actions.
This one carries the label of romantic comedy, and why not? It has some romance, and fine comedy. The comedy mostly stems from Martha's subtle brutality with people. That poor therapist. Those poor customers. The same edge powers the tragedy, where Martha pushes away intimacy through her awkward interpersonal approach.
Sandra Nettelbeck wrote and directed this gem, which is more impressive given it is her film debut. The direction is superb and the story perfectly paced. She uses clichés to her advantage, hinting at them to introduce tension but ultimately ignoring them in favor of real behavior. This stark realism fades away so subtly that the warm fuzzies don't feel tacked on. Martha relents and warmth creeps into the film.
After watching it, I cannot place why Mostly Martha seems uplifting. The story is fundamentally sad and grimly told. Mostly Martha captures the maturity of story and character that is so refreshing in European cinema while eschewing the oppressive weight that accompanies it. It is not as quirky as Amelie, but taps into the same well. If you hate films with subtitles, this one is a good reminder that the rest of the world produces great films too.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Most of my complaints have nothing to do with the movie, but with its treatment. First, why change the name? "Mostly Martha" is a "mostly dumb" name for this movie. "Bella Martha" the original title, is much classier and more evocative. Second, Paramount puts this in the "Classic" collection. I have faith it will become a classic, but let's give it more than a year to be sure, shall we? Finally, it is a crime that a film with numerous international film accolades is packaged with no extras. Surely some footage exists from one of those international film festivals, perhaps some shred of promotional material? Throw it in, even if it's in German.
I have some minor nitpicks regarding picture quality. The transfer was soft and had an unhealthy amount of dust. The contrast was a bit low, resulting in loss of shadow detail in many dark scenes. The image quality was not poor enough to detract from the pleasure of the viewing.
Mostly Martha is sophisticated without being highbrow. It rewards the effort you expend understanding the characters. (For example, when the answering machine message plays, ponder Martha's culpability.) The gourmet angle is well handled; in a sense, Mostly Martha represents gourmet cinema. Bon appetit!
Sandra Nettelbeck, as the primary culprit in this caper, you earn the brunt of his honor's appreciation. But there is room for the superb cast, fine cameramen and sublime soundtrack. The court requests that you create more films and try to convince Paramount to throw in an extra or two. Dinner is served…err, case dismissed!
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