Mostly Martha (Bella Martha) (Germany 2001) ***1/2
Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. Produced by Christoph Friedel & Karl Baumgartner. Photography, Michael Bertl. Production design, Thomas Freudenthal. Music, Manfred Eicher. Cast: Martina Gedeck (Martha Klein), Sergio Castellitto (Mario), Maxime Foerste (Lina), Sibylle Canonica (Frida), Katja Studt (Lea), Oliver Broumis (Jan), August Zirner (Therapist) and Ulrich Thomsen (Sam Thalberg). In German, with English subtitles. A Paramount Classics release. 107 minutes. PG.
Think of the Danish "Babette's Feast," of the Japanese "Tampopo." Of the Mexican "Like Water for Chocolate," of the French "Chocolat," of the American "Big Night," and several other films, and you'll only scratch the surface of movies that celebrate food. Or even use it in weird way, as in Marco Ferreri's "La Grande Bouffe" in which some friends decide to die from eating.
Unexpectedly, this latest addition to "food movies" comes from Germany, a country which may have its share of gourmet cuisine but does not make it a crucial priority for the good life the way France (plus Italy, Belgium, et al) do.
The German title is a bit awkward. The German working title was better. "Drei Sterne," (Three Stars) must have referred to the famous Michelin Guide's top rating of *** that is parsimoniously given to the best of the best among restaurants. The American title is vague as well as possibly confusing since it could evokes, these days, Martha Stewart. No matter. "MM" is a small gem.
In a fashionable and mutedly elegant restaurant, thirty-something Martha (Martina Gedeck) is master chef. She is a true artist who has the most demanding standards, for herself and her staff. And she has a fiery temperament. Putting it mildly, she will not tolerate fools (i.e. stupid, overbearing clients) gladly. The food is so good that a bad customer is never right.
Martha is nice looking though not distractingly pretty. Her personal life is almost nonexistent. She lives for "haute cuisine," obsesses about it, funnels what private feelings she has through it.
The setting is Hamburg. Martha's seemingly sole contact with the world at large is her divorced sister ( and the latter's 8-year old daughter Lina (Maxime Foerste.) When the sister dies in a car accident Martha takes over the child, a girl with a strong, moody and not always tractable personality.
Given Martha's new responsibility, her boss hires a "sous-chef," i.e a second in command, to relieve Martha. He is Mario, an Italian who speaks German (beautifully dubbed.) Clearly an ace in the kitchen, as played by the excellent Sergio Castellito, Mario is ebullient, full of "joie de vivre" and friendliness. All this goes against Martha's lifestyle (or lack thereof) and worse, is felt by her as a demotion and a danger.
Rest assured. In a variant of the cold, gloomy North vs. the warm, sunny South, the Italian brings about major changes in the lives of Martha as well as Lina.
The film is wonderfully civilized. It is a job that, if made in Hollywood, would come out underlined, artificial, built like a melodrama plus funny stuff, whereas here it is treated like chamber music, with naturalness, subtle humor and excellent rituals of cooking. The players were taught and drilled by Rocco Dressel, a master chef. All performances are discreet, use to maximum effect the eloquence of looks, glances, body language and clever camera angles.
It is the first feature by writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck. Martina Gedeck is an established star of movies and TV in Germany. Champaign-Urbana denizens take note! The fourth-billed performer (he plays Martha's therapist) is August (Augie) Zirner who was born (1959) and grew up in Urbana. The son of the late U of I Music(Piano) Professor Ludwig Zirner and Laura Zirner, he moved to Austria in 1973, studied acting, was in many plays, and has been in 54 movies (International and German, including TV) to date, often in the leading male role.