As Martha, the heroine-chef of the German film, MOSTLY MARTHA, explains it, she’s not obsessive. She’s precise. Being the chef at a trendy restaurant in Hamburg requires split-second timing and an attention to detail that to the untrained eye might seem obsessive, but isn’t. At least according to Martha. Of course, she’s explaining this to her therapist, the one her employer is forcing her to see in order to avoid being fired. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. Martha is a self-absorbed, perfectionist with no social life and no passion outside the preparing of exquisite food, and no clue about the effect her strict view of how things should be done affect the people around her. She’s also just a bit highly strung, taking time outs in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator or berating a diner for not knowing fine cuisine when presented to him or her. Yet for Martha, this is as it should be. For her cooking is an intellectual exercise, such that we never see her actually eating anything that she’s cooked. For her, the attraction to the culinary arts is the way she can combine ingredients in a precise way and create a masterpiece every time. No guesswork, no sudden flashes of inspiration, it’s strictly A plus B equals a dish fit for the gods that she can then take over to her therapist who doubles as her taster.
Martha’s world, however, is about to be knocked off kilter. On the home front, in the form of an eight-year-old niece comes to live with her and who is more like Martha than Martha. On the professional front, by an assistant chef from Italy, who couldn’t be less like Martha, as he savors the sensual magic of a fine meal while filling the restaurant’s kitchen with an unexpected joie-de-vivre and the dulcet tones of Dean Martin and Louis Prima.
Martha’s journey into the bustle of life is one fraught with all the usual pains and setbacks, but writer/director Sandra Nettlebeck never reduces the reality of Martha’s unacknowledged loneliness to a jumble of cinematic quirks. When her niece refuses to eat anything Martha cooks, there is genuine bewilderment as she realizes that up until now food is all she had to offer anyone and suddenly something deeper will be required. And further, that maybe this will be a good thing for everyone, especially herself. Nettlebeck’s casting of Martina Gedeck as Martha and Sergio Castellito as her foil Mario, the Italian chef who knows how to whip up more than a good meal could not be better. Gedeck’s cool reserve that Martha clings to as though it were a life preserver is a perfect foil to Castellito’s earthy animal magnetism, not to mention limpid eyes that could melt an ice sculpture at 40 paces.
MOSTLY MARTHA is a total charmer with the perfect blend of humor and heart. The only drawback might be that you will crave a cannoli, and maybe a kiss, when it’s all over. Try to have both on hand.