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Mostly Martha

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Well, I’ve learned my lesson. If I’m going to see an art-house movie, I’m going close to the beginning of its run, instead of waiting for it to end up in an “independent” theater. “Independent”, in this context, means that the lobby was decorated in 70’s-reject style and Briana loves Jenna was playing on the next screen over. My skin was crawling, and every nerve ending was screaming, For god’s sake, don’t touch anything! The seats exacerbated an already aching back, and looking at the screen required tilting the neck up at an unnatural angle.

But when Mostly Martha opened with luscious shots of beautiful food in a trendy restaurant’s kitchen, I forgot where I was and lost myself in the film. If you’ve ever seen a food movie such Eat Drink Man Woman or Like Water for Chocolate, you already know what to expect. Emotionally blocked protagonist pours her soul into her food, and is liberated by family/a lover/one really good shagging. It’s a simple story, but as Martha (Martina Gedeck) notes, you can tell a good chef by how she prepares the simplest dishes.

Martha is the chef at the Lido, a chi-chi eatery in Hamburg with a habit of avoiding her fellow workers. Forced to see a therapist by restaurateur Frida (Sybille Canonica), she turns her therapy sessions into opportunities to have her psychologist (August Zirner) try out new concoctions.

In quick succession, Martha’s sister is killed in a car accident, her niece (Maxime Foerste) comes stay with her until she can find the girl’s father, and new sous-chef Mario (Sergio Castellitto) arrives in her kitchen. The rest of the story you can fill in on your own, but food movies are about character, not plot. Good thing, too. Otherwise I’d have to take points off for the on-again, off-again subplot about a downstairs neighbor that goes nowhere.

Ms. Gedeck does an incredible job in the beginning, keeping her brittle composure—or at least letting Martha think she is—while simultaneously revealing the whirling undercurrents below. I don’t envy anyone that thespian task, but she gets the job done superbly. Young Maxime Foerste manages, at the same time, to underact and overdo playing a grieving yet bratty young girl. I’m not quite sure how she managed that. Castellitto does well in a role that could easily have degenerated into a stereotypical passionate-Italian. Instead, he throws away the recipe, so to speak, and tosses in his own intimacy and energy in his scenes with Ms. Gedeck; you can feel a slow flame between them heating up the audience.

Luckily, as you read this you don’t need to experience this film in a sometime-porno palace. It’s available to rent now.

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About Dave Tepper