Friday, February 21, 2003

German director Sandra Nettelbeck’s second film, Mostly Martha, was a big hit here in the East Bay this past autumn. It was held over at the Albany Cinema (a big old movie house that exhibits “independent” and foreign film) longer then any movie since we’ve been here. Cathy and I missed it for a variety of reasons though I do recall the following being said in its disfavor: “I don’t know if I’m in the mood for a food film.” Given that the person offering this has a great passion for food, particularly food preparation which involves long hours in the kitchen (the end result being, it goes without saying- though I will- a fiesta for the mouth) I was sympathetic and offered other choices for her approval.

Some past food films:
-Big Night
-Eat, Drink, Man, Woman
-Like Water For Chocolate

Martha (Martina Gedeck) is the head chef of a high end Hamburg restaurant. Gedeck is a revelation, sharing with the American actresses Hope Davis and Laura Linney a reticent radiance that quietly draws you in and blooms into something exquisite. One attentive reviewer rightly pointed out that the range of facial expressions Gedeck brings to her character is a small marvel in and of itself and has the added benefit of radiating outwards and enhancing the performances of her fellow actors. Her Martha lives for the kitchen and demands perfection. She, of course, lives alone. Her sister calls and pleads with her to get out and see a movie on her day off. Gedeck endows Martha with just enough wounded grace (and it’s to Nettelbeck’s credit that there’s no attempt to offer up a pat answer as to why she’s so inhibited) to reveal a empathetic glimpse of Matha's inner life and the stubborn persistence of its yearning. She’s definitely an ice queen but we want her to be thawed.

Enter the cute little nubbin. Martha’s sister is killed in a car crash while driving out to visit- one of the first of many scenes that makes this glossy (its production values rivals anything coming out of Hollywood- though it’s far classier) production such a nice surprise. Martha picks up the phone amidst the pungent chaos (yes, there are a few exquisite food production montages) of her kitchen and receives word of the accident. Rather then exploit this scene, Nettelbeck simply offers a quiet shot of Martha slowly bowing her head in grief before swiftly moving on. Martha suddenly find herself the guardian of her niece, Lina (the very cute Maxine Foerste), a bewildered little girl grasping at her new terrible reality. Martha attempts to connect the only way she knows how- food. Lina refuses to eat. These early scenes, taking place in the hospital room where Lina is recovering, are just one of the early showcases demonstrating Gedeck's poise and Nettelbeck's sense of the discreet. There's no easy reward of an "emotional breakthrough" and the collapse of Lina into Martha's welcoming arms doesn't come until much later, in a moment stung with anger, grief and a tenderness that tears you apart. For now, Martha just wants Lina to eat something.

Enter the loveable Italian sous-chef. When Martha has to take some time off to grieve and manage her newfound role as guardian, the owner of the restaurant she works for hires Mario (Sergio Castellitto) to help run the kitchen. As Mario, Castellitto flaunts dozens of clichés so adeptly that you may find yourself way past caring. He’s histrionic, has a scruffy beard, hound dog eyes, passionately listens and responds to swooning Italian music in the kitchen, emotes waves of tenderness and scares the hell out of the icy Martha, who believes he’s there to steel her position. But of course he’s not. When she returns to the kitchen and treats him badly, he's bold and quick to respond. He corners her in the walk-in fridge where she frequently escapes to cool off and enjoy a few moments of respite and lets her know that he’s really there (he could, he tells her, get a job anywhere and we believe him) only because he respects her and wants to work beside her. Castellitto is perfect in the role, oozing a breezy masculine confidence and radiating necessary warmth. His Mario is prepared to do some thawing. That is, after all, why he's in this story.

Reenter the cute little nubbin. Martha still can’t get Lina to eat. She’s passing out from hunger in school. Not able to find a decent babysitter, Martha begins to bring her into the kitchen where she adorably helps out before adorably falling asleep on a counter. One night Mario walks over to where Lina is sitting and nonchalantly prepares a bowl of delicious, steaming pasta. Lina tries not to care. Mario pretends not to care either…but we know he does and we love him for it. It’s an emotionally overwhelming scene and like so many in this movie, it bluntly flaunts the saccharine without overindulging and becoming a tummy ache. As he begins wolfing his mouthwatering meal down before the challenging eyes of Nina, he’s suddenly called back to his duties in the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. He distractedly hands her the bowl and says, “Save some for me.” Sure, right. Seconds later, we see Martha, icy general of the hustle/bustle, looking over and noticing that Nina is, indeed, eating. Martha knowingly looks at the culprit, sheepish Mario. Is that a smile on her face? Are they falling for each other?

Of course they are. This film, like any romance in Hollywood, is determined to give you what you want and the plot calmly and snugly adheres to expectations. Where it differs is that it’s not prepared to slavishly pander. Each time it could go overboard and plunge into swampy bathos it nimbly swerves away and surprises by offering something poignant and emotionally satisfying instead. This happens enough times to reveal itself as one of Nettelbeck’s great gifts as a director- her attention to emotional thresholds and knowing just how far she’ll allow the scenes to cross them before reigning them in or leading them in a new, more interesting and honest direction. This never feels like a ‘technique’ and she’s adeptly aided by her wonderful cast. In one scene, for example, Martha awakes in the middle of the night to the sound of the television. Worried, she walks out and finds Lina watching a recently filmed video of she, her mother and Martha enjoying a day at the beach. We see a couple of minutes of footage before Lina quietly stands up and walks, not into Lina’s arms, but back to her room where she shuts the door. In another, after Mario has come over and cooked dinner with Lina, (they purposefully exclude the perfection seeking Martha from the kitchen) an end of the night goodbye deliciously hovers between closed eyes, craning necks and pouting lips only to delicately withdraw and sigh. There’s nothing radical, by any means, about these scenes, but given their respect to emotional honesty in a medium (the mainstream romantic film) not usually known for its attention to emotional nuance, they’re glorious to behold.

Do we know how it’s going to end? You bet. Does it satisfy. Gracefully. Mostly Martha is great comfort food- it actually has some nutritional value. It’s good enough that us music snobs can even forgive the unfortunate tendency of Manfred Eicher’s (head of Germany’s EMC Records) score to, on occasion, gauchely pass over that same emotional threshold that Nettelbeck seems to understand so well and indulge in some high fructose saxophone meandering. It’s a small unfortunate- rare and, ultimately, innocuous enough to be forgiven.

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