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MOSTLY MARTHA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foereste, Sergio Castellitto, August Zirner
Director:  Sandra Nettelbeck
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 (German)
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  None
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  February 18, 2003

“Martha…why do you come to therapy every week?”

“My boss says she’ll fire me if I don’t go to therapy.”

“Why do you think your boss believes you need therapy?”

“You know what?  I have no idea…”

Film ****

Just a few days ago, our new reviewer Ed Nguyen was discussing with me how much it seems that the best romantic movies aren’t being made in the United States anymore.  Films like Two Weeks Notice or Serving Sara…how can they compare with international offerings like Mad Love or In the Mood for Love?

Our conversation was very timely, as it segued nicely into my discovery of a fresh new jewel from Germany called Mostly Martha.  With a few simple strokes and a handful of wonderful characters, but mostly, with real ideas about love and fear and about being great at some things but not so good at others, writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck has created real enchantment here…not the often manipulative and all too shallow bait-and-switch of most Hollywood pictures.

Martha (Gedeck) is a chef, and one of the best at what she does.  Her vocabulary consists of recipes and helpful kitchen hints.  When she extends a hand to you, there’s a superbly prepared dish in it.  She runs the kitchen of her boss’ restaurant with manic precision, and in the case of her food, isn’t afraid to turn the tables on the old “customer is always right” colloquialism.  She steals quiet moments for herself from time to time by shutting herself away in the walk-in freezer.

Her food is her art, and like many great artists, she strives for perfection in her work, but finds it much harder to attain in reality.  In her kitchen, she is in control.  But life seldom follows a recipe.

Two major events occur that disrupt her carefully controlled microcosm.  One is the tragedy of her sister’s sudden death, leaving her niece Lina (Foerste) in her care, while she tries to track down the father she knows nothing about.  The second is the arrival of Mario (Castellitto), a (gasp!) Italian chef hired by Martha’s boss to help out in the kitchen.  His free-spirited ways, including obsession with Italian foods and having music play while he works leave Martha in disbelief!

Martha is a terrific character in that she has to start learning to define herself apart from her cooking.  The way they say some politicians try to solve problems by throwing money at them is essentially what she does with food.  Her only initial way to react to Lina is to constantly offer to cook for her…and Lina, because of her loss, has no appetite.  Something will have to give.

Meanwhile, on the job, she refuses to see the perfect order of her kitchen disrupted by the lively Mario.  But Mario sees the vulnerability in Martha that she carefully hides (even in therapy, where she only talks about food and frequently prepares meals for her psychiatrist during their sessions!).  A romance is blooming, but not the kind we normally see that piles on the cheese.  This one is a full course meal that leads from a simple appetizer into bigger and better things.

I loved this movie from start to finish (though I have to confess, I needed to pause it just after the opening credits and make myself something to eat…talk about your Pavlovian response!).  I loved it because it wasn’t an empty-headed romantic comedy…it had ideas that it wasn’t afraid to explore, it had characters that were worth spending 100 minutes with, and it gave its audience credit for understanding the difference between cinematic fine dining and a plate of franks and beans.

The cast is wonderful, starting with the lovely and perfect Martina Gedeck in the title role.  Her Martha escapes into sauces, seasonings and recipes only to seem frequently bewildered by life when it comes creeping in…her performance is the main course!  But the film is sweetly seasoned by both young Maxime Foerste as Lina and the charming Sergio Castellitto as Mario.

But credit master chef Sandra Nettelbeck for crafting a perfect gourmet meal.  Filmmaking is indeed like fine cooking; it requires the right ingredients, the perfect timing, and a knack for how to make the ordinary seem savory.  Mostly Martha is perfectly pleasing for the palate…bon appetit!

Video ***

This is a good anamorphic offering from Paramount…images seem a tad soft throughout, but that seems to be an artistic choice, as the lessening of harsh lines create a warmer overall look, helped out by mostly sunny color schemes.  Only a tad bid of shimmer and grain here and there are worth noting, but these are light and don’t detract from the viewing experience.

Audio ***

I mostly liked the 5.1 offering for the nice musical score that played underneath.  Apart from that, dialogue always seemed well rendered (as well as I can make out, not understanding German), and the front and rear stages create a full, ambient listening experience in the kitchen scenes and a few others.  The .1 channel isn’t used much at all, but not really missed, given the nature of the movie.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Mostly Martha is a savory romantic comedy, filled with great characters, real emotion, and lots of mouth watering food.  Give this one a look, and you won’t go away hungry.