Dir: Sandra Nettelbeck. Germany. 2001. 107 mins.
German 'food' melodrama Mostly Martha may be utterly predictable but it was one of the few world premieres at the Locarno Film Festival which showed strong potential to break out of the festival circuit and European arthouse markets. Set mainly in the kitchen of a chic restaurant, Sandra Nettelbeck's impressively-directed feature concerns the initial animosity/rivalry and then love between a severe, humourless female chef and a charismatic, fun-loving Italian cook.
Boasting a wonderful turn from Martina Gedeck in the lead role, Mostly Martha is an honourable addition to a rapidly growing sub-genre of erotic food movies such as Like Water For Chocolate, Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night, although it is neither as accomplished nor sexy as those titles. Theatrical prospects are good, particularly in large urban centres where 'nouvelle cuisine' movies have always fared well with the dating crowd.
Audiences at Locarno's Piazza Grande screening cheered at the end of the movie, and the same reaction should be anticipated when it plays in the Toronto Film Festival next month.
A head cook in a fancy Hamburg restaurant, Martha (Gedeck), a young, attractive single woman, lives a dull routine life. In an early scene, she confides to her psychiatrist that, under pressure from her female boss, she needs treatment and help of how to better manage her mundane existence. Day after day, she turns out delectable dishes, but she seems to be living for her work, with no joy, no private life, and no leisure activities.
Things change when Martha gets a call that informs her of the death of her sister in a fatal car accident, as a result of which her niece Lina (Foerste) is the only survivor. Just as strong-headed as Martha, the eight-year-old Lina, who was raised by her single mom, insists on going to her own home, which, of course is unacceptable to her aunt. With her latent maternal instincts rekindled, Martha takes Lina to her flat, and the two begin to share what seems to be a relentlessly gloomy and orderly life. Nettelbeck's well-structured script pokes healthy fun at Martha's quintessentially stereotypical German traits of strict discipline and rigid, unchangeable habits.
Martha's tidy, well-organised life, both at home and at work, begins to spin out of control when Mario (Castellitto), a new, high-spirited Italian, is hired at the restaurant. Soon, the entire kitchen, heavily populated by women of various ages, falls under his spell. Martha perceives him as undesirable competition, though her colleagues - and the audience - know that it's only a matter of time before she too falls hard for him.
Indeed, the film's second half follows the familiar path of romantic melodramas. First, it's Lina who warms up to Mario, eating her first meal after months of rebellion under his supervision - and his delicious cooking. Then, it's Martha who begins to wonder whether her reaction to Mario isn't a peculiarly suspicious mix of personal and professional interests. In one of the yarn's most charming scenes, Mario arrives at Martha's with a uniquely prepared meal, proposing to have a picnic on the floor, with no dishes or silverware. All goes well, until Martha enters the kitchen and collapses upon observing the filth and mess created by Mario.
In a sentimental subplot, Martha helps her niece retrieve her absent father, now happily married to another woman. Female viewers may particularly like the notion of a thirtysomething career woman, who's not only defrosted by a winsome Italian, but rediscovers the meaning of family to the point of reclaiming Lina as her surrogate daughter.
The problem is that except for Martha the other characters are cliches, particularly Mario as an Italian charmer, by now a stereotypical role seen in practically every British serio comedy that involves a cross-cultural affair, in which one party (usually the English) is sombre and earnest and the other (usually Italian, Spanish, or Greek) is gutsy, spontaneous and fun-loving, from Zorba the Greek all the way to literary adaptations such as A Room With a View.
Almost single-handedly accounting for the film's overall emotional impact is the beautiful Gedeck, who gives a commanding performance. Looking "natural," as if she were merely lending herself to the manipulations of script, camera, and editing, Gedeck drifts along in a sensual haze, pulled this way and that by need, guilt, and desire, gradually transforming from a classic, sympathetic loser to a blossoming and winning woman.
Pro co: A Bavaria Film International presentation of a Pandora and Kinowelt production, in association with T&C Film AG, Prisma Film, and Palomar
Int'l sales: Bavaria Film Int'l
Prods: Karl Baumgartner, Christoph Friedel
Scr: Sandra Nettelbeck
DoP: Michael Bertl
Prod des: Thomas Freudenthal
Ed: Mona Brauer
Music: Keith Jarrett, Arvo Part, David Darling
Main cast: Martina Gedeck, Sergio Castellitto, Maxime Foerste