Despite the emphasis of its English title, Sandra Nettelbeck’s feature debut “Mostly Martha” is (as the original German name indicates) actually a film about three people–the titular woman (Martina Gedeck), a straightlaced, perfectionist chef in an upscale Hamburg restaurant; her eight- year old niece Lina (Maxime Foerste), who shatters her aunt’s solitary existence when she comes to live with Martha after her mother’s tragic death; and Mario (Sergio Castellito), an ebullient Italian sous-chef whose addition to the kitchen staff miffs Martha but who eventually proves instrumental in teaching her to break down the emotional walls she’s long used to isolate herself. Even a sketchy description of these characters indicates the preordained conclusion toward which the script is inevitably drawn, so the only question is whether the well-worn ingredients are given a spin sufficiently fresh to make the outcome palatable.
Here, the answer is a qualified yes. Certainly the Martha-Mario culture-clash business offers few surprises–she’s the cool, reserved fraulein so in thrall to her work that she’s basically incapable of dealing with anything outside it, while he’s the colorful, voluble romantic who constantly shows his joie de vivre by singing Italian songs–but neither Gedeck nor Castellito takes the ethnic stereotype to unseemly lengths. Gedeck, in particular, makes Martha a rich, textured figure, capturing her rigidity (most amusingly exhibited in her sessions with an extremely tolerant therapist) but also her self-doubt and neediness. Castellito, by contrast, has much less opportunity to move past caricature, but he does at least keep the gesticulation to a minimum and savor Mario’s quieter moments. In Foerste, moreover, Nettelbeck has a child who succeeds in being both sweet and sour–a kid whose unhappy experiences leave her sulky and rebellious, but not to the extent that you cease to care about what happens to her. Despite Martha’s centrality, Lina is really the key character in the story, the one whose presence is the catalyst of change; and if the child didn’t seem real–truly devastated by her mother’s death and only grudgingly open to affection from others–the picture would become mawkish and manipulative. Foerste is good enough that it doesn’t. The mixture of comedy and melodrama remains calculated, of course, but the calibre of the performances make it easier to swallow that it might have been.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about “Making Martha”–on the one hand it very much shows the impact of Hollywood plot construction, while on the other its use of food as a symbol of emotional vitality could lead to its being dismissed as “Like Water for Babette.” Nonetheless while the ingredients are hardly new and they’re combined in familiar ways, the final dish, though not quite as light and effortless as it might be, doesn’t seem stale either. That’s a tribute to the skill of the performers and to Nettelbeck’s ability to juggle the disparate elements in her script adroitly. The result is a shrewd blend of crisp humor and restrained heart-tugging, likely to prove very appealing to American audiences.
A final note: Don’t bail out of the auditorium as soon as the final credits begin. One of the picture’s best sequences is yet to come. As is so often necessary in cooking, a little patience is required.