Mostly Martha -- **** (out of 5)   (2001)

Cast: Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste, Sergio Castellito, August Zirner

Directed By Sandra Nettelbeck

It's a rare treat when a so-called "feel-good" movie actually succeeds in making me actually feel good.  Usually the result is nausea induced by too many sickeningly sweet attempts at being cute, or merely tedium from the shallow contrivances.  MOSTLY MARTHA is one of those rare exceptions.  Hopefully future screenwriters and directors will take note, as MOSTLY MARTHA succeeds in actually making you feel good because it eschews all attempts at coyness and cuteness, instead showing you characters with all their foibles and flaws.  Kids behave like brats, adults get snippy with each other, and life just seems empty and bleak sometimes.  We feel good because we see them as genuine human beings and not artificial one-dimensional characters, so we do care that they are unhappy, and when they ultimately find that happiness, we actually do "feel good" without the need of having to see kids lip-synch to Motown, old people dressing in funny outfits, or dogs and cats playing together.

Martina Gedeck plays Martha, a top-rated chef in Germany, whose short temper and inability to accept criticism ends up resulting in her employer insisting that she see a therapist to control her tempestuous outbursts.  As skilled as she is in the kitchen, she is a mess in her personal life, living alone without anyone to love, and but for the passing words to the architect who moved into the apartment below her, she'd have no love interest at all.  That is until Martha's sister is killed in a tragic accident, leaving her in the care of her niece, Lina.  Lina is very much like Martha, quick-tempered and not eager to please strangers, and only agrees to come live with her until the father she's never known, a man named Giussepe living somewhere in Italy, comes to get her.  In the meantime, getting Lina to do such things as eat and go to school isn't proving to be easy, not to mention the difficulty in finding her father.  In addition, what was once Martha's safe haven and domain, the restaurant's kitchen, has now been infiltrated by Mario, a flashy Italian chef who seems to strike every last nerve in her.

MOSTLY MARTHA starts off by making you think it's one of those films that correlates life events with cooking, and although it has its share of those kinds of moments, they are done with more finesse and complexity than most films that have tried to do the same.  Where the film largely succeeds is in its talented cast, with brilliantly realistic performances by Gedeck and Maxime Foerster (as Lina), plus a writer/director in Sandra Nettelbeck, who not only excels in drawing well-developed characters, but also knows how to add little touches to make their behavior more realistic.  Such scenes as when Martha waves goodbye to Lina by following and waving until she's out of sight, or the never-ending litany of instructions when dropping her off to school smack of realism, drawing us into a real story with real people and not just a phony staged play.  Even the supporting characters and extras are in character when not saying anything, such as when Martha is insulting a difficult customer and the ladies he is with smirk as if he's getting what's coming to him. 

MOSTLY MARTHA is recommended for lovers of foreign films, the art-house crowd, and those venturous enough to seek something else besides the same-old same-old Hollywood blockbuster.  Remember, there's no sex, violence or special effects to dazzle the eyes here.  It's a film that must rely only on story and characters, and MOSTLY MARTHA's characters are so finely drawn, you'll almost forget you're watching a movie.

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