Mostly Martha (Germany/Italy/Austria/Switzerland, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Whenever a movie is released that seeks to tantalize the taste buds through the sheer force of its visual imagery, most critics feel duty-bound to advise potential viewers not to see the film on an empty stomach. That warning applies here, although Mostly Martha doesn't cause the same level of sensory overload as Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, or Big Night. Nevertheless, no matter how what kind of appetite for food you may have after seeing this film, your desire for quality cinema will be sated. Mostly Martha, the product of first-time feature director Sandra Nettelbeck (whose previous credits include a couple of made-for-German TV movies), is a gratifying motion picture, and it arrives in American theaters when audiences are starving for quality.

Mostly Martha tells the story of the often-tempestuous, yet ultimately rewarding, relationship between Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck), a thirty-something chef, and her sullen 8-year old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste). In many ways, this movie echoes the Hugh Grant film, About a Boy, in that it tells an effective story about cross-generational affection without wandering too deeply into the abyss of sentimentality. Mostly Martha will coax a smile from most audience members, but it doesn't try too hard. It doesn't force things by cranking up the level of manipulation. Nettlebeck illustrates that it's possible for a low-key movie to have a genuine emotional impact.

Martha is one of the best chefs in Germany, but she is business-like and strict in her approach to her craft. When it comes to food, she is a font of knowledge, but she cooks with determination, not passion. For her, running a kitchen is not about exploding creativity, but about precision, timing, and mastering logistics. Her personal life is empty. Someone mentions that the only thing lonelier than sleeping alone is eating alone, and Martha realizes she does both. Then, as the result of one tragic incident, her life changes. Her sister is killed in a car accident, and her niece comes to live with her. Lina is quiet, withdrawn, and angry. She rarely speaks to Martha and often glares at her, as if silently blaming her for the loss of her mother. Her father is an Italian, but Martha doesn't know how to locate him. And, to complicate matters, her boss at the restaurant hires another chef, the bubbly, irrepressible Mario (Sergio Castellitto), to help in the kitchen. While Mario loves working with Martha, Martha is unhappy with the situation. Then, when she can't find a babysitter for Lina, she is forced to bring the girl with her to work.

Martha is a delightfully complex character - a successful, respected chef whose personal life is as blank as the plates upon which she places her culinary creations. Lina adds a dimension to her existence that she never foresaw, and, even though Martha's relationship with Lina takes a long time to develop, it transforms her as a person, even as her presence provides Lina with something resembling stability. Mario is the "X factor", and he eventually influences both Martha and Lina.

The film has a lighthearted edge. There are many slyly comedic moments, many of which center around Martha's regular visits to her therapist. She spends hours on his couch, regaling him with descriptions of her kitchen creations. On one occasion, she fixes him a meal, and, on another, he follows one of her recipes in an attempt to bake a dessert. These moments of levity, sprinkled throughout the movie, provide relief from an otherwise intense tale.

The acting is top-notch. Martina Gedeck is glorious as Martha. Gedeck ably handles all of the challenges inherent in playing Martha - the harsh, unyielding chef whose icy façade crumbles when she's alone in the freezer, seeking a moment's respite; the fumbling would-be mother-figure who desperately wants to reach her niece; and the woman in search of some sort of human warmth. As Lina, Maxime Foerste gives a natural, unforced performance. We never once sense that she's an actor playing a part. And Sergio Castellitto is delightful as Mario, the man with a big heart and a bigger personality.

There's plenty of food to be seen in Mostly Martha, and, as one would suspect, there's a symbolic significance to all of it. When the film begins, Martha has no life outside of her cooking. It is what she does well, but, while she guards it jealously, she does not love it. By the end, however, she has found pleasure in life as well as in food. She enjoys eating as much as she does making the meal. As much as any other motion picture that employs the preparation and consumption of food as a key element, Mostly Martha provides the perfect blend of cinematic nourishment and gratification.

Mostly Martha (Germany/Italy/Austria/Switzerland, 2001)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2002-08-23
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1