Mostly Martha
directed by Sandra Nettelbeck
(Paramount, 2001)

Martha Klein is in therapy, she says, because her boss would fire her if she weren't.

Martha thinks she has her hands full running the kitchen at Frida's restaurant. There are customers who complain about everything, customers who complain about nothing and Frida herself, who acknowledges that she'd gladly let Martha go if she weren't "the second-best cook in the city."

But Martha, who already spends considerable time catching her breath in the cooler, is just one phone call away from an event that's going to change her life forever: a car crash takes the life of her sister and leaves her in custody of her niece.

Suddenly Martha -- 30-something, unattached, with no apparent outside interests -- has a family, and not a very willing family at that. Eight-year-old Lina wants to live with her father -- whom she has never met and knows only as Giuseppe of Italy -- and she's not about to take no for an answer. Neither is she happy about living with Martha, going to school or having a baby sitter. And, perhaps worst of all, she refuses to eat.

To make matters worse -- as if they needed to be -- in Martha's brief absence from work, Frida hires an Italian chef who is to stay on after Martha's return, giving her one more reason to retreat to the cooler.

Mostly Martha starts as a quirky comedy but quickly becomes domestic drama of the first order, then spends most of the remainder of its 105 minutes step-dancing back and forth between the two. But unlike many films, which fail because they can't make up their minds what they want to be, Mostly Martha succeeds because it gives us the best of both worlds, plus a third -- some romance, as it becomes apparent that Lina needs a father as well as a mother.

One reason for the film's enormous success is the underplayed style of acting. Martina Gedeck is a powerful presence as Martha, quiet but never unassuming, quick with a zinger but capable of showing deep concern with the smallest of looks.

Maxime Foerste is easily her match as Lina, capturing the incessant mope of an 8-year-old who doesn't like her life but doesn't know what to do to change it. And Sergio Castellation is simply fun to watch as the man who can find joy in just about anything, whether it's finding space in another cooks' kitchen or breaking down the walls surrounding a reluctant lover.

But the acting is just the beginning. There's wonderful cinematography, too, as the camera drifts through the kitchen, peering into pots and pans; studying hands as they slice vegetables, set tables and crank out pasta; touching lightly on all the actors, as if it, too, were searching for the perfect ingredient.

And finally, there's the dialogue.

"It's your restaurant, but her kitchen," Mario tells Frida after Martha has made it very clear she wants him to leave. "Without her it's just a pile of metal."

It's distinctions like that which bring out the film's finest quality: its intelligence.

Mostly Martha is an intelligent movie about intelligent people caught up in a series of interrelated crises that intelligence alone can't resolve. And yet the participants do resolve them, and without money, guns or weapons of mass profanity.

The result is a film as tasty as the food it showcases. OK, the denouement might be a tad too sweet for some tastes, mine included, but it's followed by a coda that's guaranteed to crack you up. This is dinner, a movie and dessert all in one.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 21 February 2004

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