Mostly Martha

An uptight professional chef, who cooks with chilly precision and not an ounce of warmth, has her heart thawed by an orphaned child and a new lover whom she hates at first sight. First-time feature writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck transformed this formulaic premise into a fresh and charming film, her slyly astringent sensibility perfectly offsetting the...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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An uptight professional chef, who cooks with chilly precision and not an ounce of warmth, has her heart thawed by an orphaned child and a new lover whom she hates at first sight. First-time feature writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck transformed this formulaic premise into a fresh and charming film, her slyly astringent sensibility perfectly offsetting the story's inherent sweetness. Chef Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) rules her kitchen in a trendy Hamburg restaurant with an iron hand, retreating to the walk-in freezer for a literal and metaphorical cool down when her formidably frigid facade threatens to melt under pressure. Martha's meals are marvels of taste, color and texture, but her personal life is almost ascetic — she has no romantic interests, hobbies or friends. Her only significant relationship outside work is with her sister, a single mother with an 8-year-old, Lina (Maxine Foerste), the product of a short-lived relationship with a man who's long since gone home to his native Italy. Martha's boss, Frida (Sibylle Canonica), insists that Martha needs psychiatric help, but Martha spends her sessions describing favorite recipes and insisting that she likes her life just the way it is. Then a car accident changes everything: Martha loses her sister and gains custody of the needy Lina. Motherhood doesn't come naturally to Martha, and Lina sulks, skips school and wants only to live with the father she's never met. Martha and the recalcitrant child eventually strike a bargain; Lina will live with Martha only until Martha can track down Lina's father. But Lina still refuses to eat, and there's a crisis brewing at work, where Frida has hired a second chef, the oh-so-Italian Mario (Sergio Castellitto), to "help out." Mario's approach to cooking is as instinctive and improvisational as Martha's is precise and ordered, and as if two cooks in one kitchen weren't awkward enough, Martha needs Mario's help locating Lina's father. Worst of all, Mario easily wins over little Lina's stomach (and perhaps her heart) with his lovingly prepared pastas. The plot unfolds exactly as you expect, but Gedeck imbues Martha with a remarkably subtlety of spirit. Rather than a caricature of an unfulfilled career woman who needs to find her inner Earth Mother, her Martha is simply someone who's settled into a familiar but limited groove and needs help seeing that life could offer her more. It's delightful to see her get it. (In German, with English subtitles.)

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: PG
  • Review: An uptight professional chef, who cooks with chilly precision and not an ounce of warmth, has her heart thawed by an orphaned child and a new lover whom she hates at first sight. First-time feature writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck transformed this formula… (more)

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