The ingredients may be familiar, but they’re pan-fried with skill and piquancy in “Mostly Martha,” a charming relationships comedy about food, gourmet cooking and emotionally chilling out. Anchored by a career-best performance from German thesp Martina Gedeck, as a 30something chef whose contained world is thrown for a loop by her young niece and a molto simpatico Italian, pic could mop up some warm gravy outside Teuton kitchens with correct handling and good reviews. It proved an audience pleaser at its Locarno festival preem and subsequent Toronto screenings and could break the export barrier for non-arty German fare.
Food and love isn’t the most original pairing in movie history, and recent German cinema also has produced several light comedies on the theme of northern Frauen yielding to Latino charm. While adhering to the basics of both genres, “Martha” rings some agreeable changes by being based (almost entirely) in Germany — wintry Hamburg — and being about much more than a stony Teutonic heart melted by Italo warmth.
Martha (Gedeck) is head chef of a fancy modern restaurant who’s not above bawling out a customer who thinks her foie gras is overcooked. Because she’s good at what she does, and her work is her life, the eatery boss, Frida (Sibylle Canonica), cuts Martha plenty of slack. Though she regularly sees a shrink, and cools out in the freezer when things get tough at work, Martha is just about keeping her life under control. When an architect, Sam (Ulrich Thomsen), moves into a downstairs apartment, she offers to cook a meal for him but no more.
Martha’s ordered world is rocked by two events. Her sister dies in an auto accident and she temporarily takes in her 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), until the kid’s father can be traced; and Frida hires an Italian sous-chef, Mario (Sergio Castellito), without telling her. While Mario is charming the kitchen staff, Lina is making Martha frantic with her grumpiness and refusal to eat her food. Both problems come to a head and seem to sort themselves out, but then Lina suddenly runs away when Martha makes a discovery about her.
Script by writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck lets the viewer draw the obvious conclusion that Martha is great in the kitchen but hopeless with kids, men and people in general. And by keeping the comedy low-key and focusing everything on the title character, Nettelbeck produces a remarkably complete portrait of her subject from every angle, rather than just using her as a simple cliche in an emotional equation.
Most impressive, however, is Nettelbeck’s sheer assurance behind the camera. With its timely use of fades, plus pacing and look, pic in no way feels like a first feature after only two TV movies.
Gedeck, who’s been doing quality work in similar fare for almost a decade with little recognition outside Germany, is simply superb in her most substantial, headlining role to date. Maturely sexy in an understated way, switching from cool to warm with the raise of a well-shaped eyebrow, she provides a firm emotional tiller for the other thesps’ perfs, which hold the line between out-and-out comedy and saccharine romance.
As Mario, the experienced Castellito underplays what easily could have become a joke Italian and is helped by excellent, almost invisible dubbing into German. Foerste, too, is surprisingly sympathetic as the brattish Lina, and shines particularly opposite Castellito. Casting of other roles, especially Martha’s well-etched co-workers, is on the nose, with Idil Uner (from “In July”) notable in a small part and Canonica ditto as Martha’s hard-assed boss.
Technical credits are tip-top, with some atmospheric music cues drawn from various composers and Michael Bertl’s lensing of chilly Hamburg managing to make the city look quite attractive.