Tag Archives: B-

MOSTLY MARTHA (DREI STERNE)

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.

A MAP OF THE WORLD

The acting definitely transcends what could have been terribly
shopworn material in Scott Elliott’s adaptation of Jane
Hamilton’s novel, about a harried mother/school nurse in
rural Wisconsin who’s tormented by the fact that a neighbor’s
young daughter died while in her care and accused of sexual
abuse by several local children. From the perspective of
content alone, “A Map of the World” resembles nothing more
than one of those four-hour Lifetime miniseries about a woman
whose life is shattered by tragedy and wrongful vilification–
though, to be fair, the script does attempt to build greater
dramatic complexity into the situation than a simple precis
might suggest.

But the picture is raised far above any cable-TV level by
showcasing some of the finest performances given by American
actresses this year. Sigourney Weaver is strikingly direct
and honest as the troubled heroine, brilliantly projecting the
character’s guilt and ambivalence, and Julianne Moore is
equally superb in the smaller but difficult role of the friend
whose daughter drowns while being watched over by Weaver. In
an even lesser part amounting to little more than a cameo,
Chloe Sevigny does wonders as the slatternly mother of the boy
who accuses Weaver of molesting him; and young Dara Perlmutter
is very realistic as Weaver’s frequently nasty and unpleasant
older daughter (no rose-colored views of childhood here). Even
Louise Fletcher, who’s given to overacting, manages a nice
turn as Weaver’s slightly critical but essentially well-
intentioned mother-in-law.

The men are not quite up to this level, but David Strathairn
puts his laconic persona to good use as Weaver’s retiring but
supportive husband, while Arliss Howard displays an easygoing
sleaziness as her driven defense lawyer.

For the first hour of the picture, stage director Scott Elliott
does a very good job of maintaining the tension of the story
without sacrificing the integrity of the performances or the
gritty complexity of the characterization; at times the result
recalls the effect that Victor Nunez and the young Ashley Judd
achieved in “Ruby in Paradise.” But in the second half of the
film, as Weaver goes into the county jail and suffers a
variety of indignities at the hands of some hard-bitten,
initially unsympathetic inmates, the story slides off into
greater conventionality; despite the efforts of Weaver to
suggest that the incarceration is, for the overburdened and
guilt-ridden housewife, in some ways an oddly liberating
experience, the bonding that the orange-suited women
eventually achieve over their differences is forced and
unpersuasive. The intercutting of a brief attraction between
Strathairn and Moore at this juncture also seems strained,
and the final court sequences, despite a narrative attempt to
throw a final curve, come across as entirely too pat and
predictable.

Until the picture veers off onto too many tangents that neither
the writing nor the direction is accomplished enough to bring
together successfully, however, “A Map of the World” carries
surprising dramatic power; and the acting is good enough to
carry it over even the admitted rough patches in the final
reels. In spite of its flaws, moreover, it provides a setting
for some of the best work Weaver and Moore have ever done; and
given their previous accomplishments, that’s high praise
indeed, and reason enough to see it.