Penelope Cruz is the wellspring of all womanly virtues in “Ma ma,” one of those actor-driven projects that enshrine a star’s ideal vision of themselves without necessarily tapping into what’s interesting or surprising about them as a performer. Focusing on a Madrid mother whose breast cancer is just the most prominent of many tearjerking elements, Julio Medem’s film is a smiling-through-tears saga whose generally tasteful execution can’t ultimately salvage a whopping load of maudlin contrivance, all designed to burnish the halo around St. Penelope. She’ll power mainstream box office in Spanish-speaking markets and other fanbases, but elsewhere the pic won’t be getting the reviews to gain any arthouse traction. Oscilloscope claimed U.S. rights just before Toronto premiere.
Nervously waiting a few months after finding a lump in one breast, Magda (Cruz) finally drags herself to see her gynecologist, Julian (Asier Etxeandia), who soon delivers the bad news: She will need a mastectomy, preceded by debilitating chemo treatments. She ponders this ill fortune at a soccer game where her son Dani (Teo Planell) excels as usual, attracting the attention of talent scout Arturo (Luis Tosar), who’s looking for talented young players to enroll in the junior leagues that could lead to a pro career. “I needed some good news today,” Magda tells her new acquaintance, but just then Arturo gets a call with the worst news imaginable: There’s been a car accident, one that’s killed his daughter and left his wife in a coma.
Magda takes the distraught man to the hospital, then continues visiting him there after her own subsequent radiation therapies — which she’s informed no one else about, her self-absorbed academic husband, Raul (Alex Brendemuhl), having recently abandoned the family for an affair with a student. She packs off a temporarily none-the-wiser Dani to spent some summer vacation time with relatives. So she and Arturo become one another’s primary support as they undergo their separate ordeals, developing an attachment that deepens further when he becomes a widow. He seems a more fit father figure than Raul anyway, and once Magda recovers from her operation, this new domestic regime born of tragedy looks like a keeper.
But cruel fate isn’t done with Magda yet, and at this approximate midpoint, “Ma ma” goes from being a straightforward, rather simple but well-handled soap opera to a shameless load of bathos. There is no lack of hugs, tears and miscellaneous histrionics, through all of which Cruz’s character accumulates the life force of a thousand nobly self-sacrificing heroines. (The film’s use of blinding white as a design motif underlines just how pure and close to heaven Magda is, further bludgeoning the viewer into admiration of her indomitable spirit.) She is Love Itself, with three adoring men (including the eventually repentant Raul) buzzing around her light. Julian, the kind of only-in-movies doctor who seems to exist solely for one special patient, even regularly serenades her with love songs.
Recently laid off from her schoolteacher job, Magda apparently has no friends or other family. Other women, in fact, seem to be barred from orbiting around her sun, apart from a nurse or two allowed to express brief, moist sympathy toward her beatific suffering. Just about anything in the way of backstory or idiosyncrasy that might create an actual character — but complicate Cruz’s beaming serenity — is excluded from the director’s script. Though it’s about a person who selflessly gives all to others, “Ma ma” (billed upfront as “A Film by Penelope Cruz and Julio Medem,” with the former also a producer) could hardly be a more blatant vanity project.
“Ma ma” really jumps the shark after a while; a final scene almost seems to dare viewers not to titter at its over-the-top sentimentality. Nor does an attempted lyrical thread involving spectral visions of an angelic blonde Siberian orphan (Anna Jimenez) do more in the end than add to the general syrup level, though it does help keep the package fairly stylish. Magda’s slips in and out of consciousness and other elements also create some visual/editorial interest. But those textures finally prove just arty window dressing on a cornball weepie.
Basically reduced to chorus boys waving emotional jazz hands around the star turn, the male thesps barely squeak through with their dignity intact. Cruz’s ample star appeal buoys this flimsy vehicle to a point, but even that quality isn’t infallible, and after a while the pic’s refusal to truly demand more from her (despite all the wasting-away makeup, wigs etc.) makes Magda’s big heart seem more like a flashing neon sign than the actual thumping organ we duly get in CGI imagery.
Packaging is sleek, with design elements including Alberto Iglesias’ score aiming for an ethereal mood.