Yummy cinema

Mostly Martha

“I can see it’s a grasshopper. What I want to know is how it got in the    manicotti.”

“I can see it’s a grasshopper. What I want to know is how it got in the manicotti.”

Rated 4.0

From the looks of the opening scene, one could be under the impression that Mostly Martha will be a lighthearted look at a neurotic, food-loving chef. It features the film’s protagonist and title character describing her intricate, almost insane attention to food and its preparation. The moment points us in the direction of just another silly food comedy.

Mostly Martha is so much more. It’s being marketed as the best food comedy since Big Night, but it’s actually a well-modulated, serious drama peppered with inspired, uplifting humor.

Martha (played by the stunning Martina Gedeck) is a bit of a nut in the German kitchen she rules over, manically fussing over every detail of her recipes and scolding customers for daring to suggest that the steak she prepared is too rare. Her love life has suffered at the hands of her career, as evidenced by her weak attempt to mingle with the new neighbor in her apartment building. When she offers him some of her newly cooked dinner, he politely replies, “You don’t even know me.”

When a family tragedy occurs, Martha winds up taking temporary custody of her young niece, Lina (the incredible Maxime Foerste in her first feature lead role). Lina is a complex child, unable to eat in the wake of her loss and unwilling to attend school on a regular basis. She longs to find the Italian father she has never known, and struggles to accept Martha as a mother figure.

Martha can’t handle the transition, constantly bringing the child to school late, keeping the kid up all night at the restaurant and, in one instance, doing a lousy job of holding her temper. Her perfectly arranged life, along with her kitchen, is thrown into disarray.

When Martha’s work suffers, an assistant chef (the funny Sergio Castellitto) is brought in. Mario is an Italian whirlwind, dancing about the kitchen, blaring Dean Martin and Louis Prima from his boom box. Mario’s infiltration of Martha’s kitchen runs parallel to Lina’s interrupting of her quiet, uneventful apartment. It seems that Martha, who has avoided social interaction for years by immersing herself in the culinary arts, has some major catching up to do when it comes to her people skills.

The film is rich with full-bodied characters, not one of the bit parts feeling incidental. I especially liked Martha’s relationship with her neighbor (Ulrich Thomsen), an architect and single father who finds himself having to perform emergency babysitting duties while his romantic advances are being rebuffed. August Zirner is very funny in his few scenes as Martha’s therapist, who reacts negatively to Martha’s preparing lush meals for her sessions.

A relationship develops between Mario and Martha in an unpredictable fashion, the sort of thing Hollywood routinely screws up. Even better is the resolution of Martha’s struggles with Ina, one of the better depictions of a mother figure and daughter relationship I’ve seen in some time. Gedeck and Foerste make for an interesting pair, and we care about how things turn out for them.

I suppose the film could’ve just been some silly comedy about kitchen hijinks, ending with the big dinner prepared for the snotty food critic. Refreshingly, the food acts as nothing but a pleasant backdrop to a more serious story with a big, sweet heart.

Mostly Martha is a charming look at a person who thinks she has all her ducks in a row, but finds out that surface organization doesn’t mean that the insides are running properly. It’s a big surprise and a sure front-runner for year-end Best Foreign Film honors. With September slime like Sweet Home Alabama and Trapped mucking up the local cinema, you should give this one a chance.