Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) is a master chef working in a trendy Hamburg bistro. She is shy, obsessive and lives for her craft until, one day, she learns that her sister was killed in a car crash. Suddenly, Martha finds herself responsible for her 8-year old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), a sad and grieving little girl. She gets some unexpected help in getting through to Lina in the person of Mario (Sergio Castellitto), the new sous chef at the restaurant, as he works his magic on the girl (and on the pretty chef) in "Mostly Martha."
Sophomore writer/director Sandra Nettlebeck doesn't break any new ground in her story of how one little girl can change the life of her career focused aunt. "Mostly Martha" covers the same territory as such films as "Bogus" where Whoopi Goldberg, the owner of a restaurant supply business, must take on the task of raising her deceased best friend's son (a stunning performance by Haley Joel Osment). As is the norm in this kind of yarn, the adult is clueless about child rearing and must undergo a change of heart and mind to pull the new, tiny family together.
While "Mostly Martha" may be a derivative story, the screenplay and actors help to make the film, though predictable, a charmer. Martha is a perfectionist in her trade and fusses over each and ever dish she serves. She brooks no criticism of her cooking whether it be from a recalcitrant customer or her boss, Frida (Sibylle Canonica). As Martha's assistant chef, Lea (Katja Studt), prepares to have a baby, Frida brings in Mario to help out. Martha is intimidated by her new under chef and is worried about her job. Then she gets the bad news about her sister and her world is turned upside down.
Little Lina, once out of the hospital, moves into Martha's apartment but is slow in coming around to her aunt. When Martha attempts to hire a babysitter to stay with Lina for the late nights she must work, the young girl, instead, seeks comfort from downstairs neighbor Sam Thalberg (Ulrich Thomsen). Martha, unsure about what to do with her ward, brings her to the restaurant where Mario lends a hand with entertaining (and, more important, feeding) Lina. But, the late nights take their toll on the little girl and she starts to have problems at school. Add to this mix Martha's efforts to locate Lina's birth father and things get more stressed.
What makes this tale of when two worlds collide a plus stems from the good-hearted screenplay, the restaurant locale and, especially, the solid cast. Martina Gedeck is suitably serious and obviously a dedicated chef as Martha. When we first meet her, she is explaining the complexity of making a fine dish. Then we realize that she is talking to a shrink at the behest of her boss. The obsessive nature, insecurity and need to do right (even when she isn't entirely sure what "right" is) make up Martha and the actress carries it off well.
Two other perfs stand out to make "Mostly Martha" more than merely routine. Sergio Castellitto is a joy to watch and brings his character, Mario, to life. When he is brought in to replace the soon-to-be-birthing Lea, Martha perceives him as a threat to her and her job. But, it soon becomes obvious that the new chef has no such agenda as she learns that Mario runs a fun and frolicking kitchen where music predominates and a joyful work environment ensues. He is also a warm, sensitive and understanding man that you want Martha to be with. Young Maxime Foerste, as little Lina, is dead on as the lonely kid who doesn't understand why her mom is gone and just wants to go home to the way things were. Her sullen demeanor is broken, as is her unstated hunger strike, with the intervention of Mario, who proceeds to both charm and feed Lina. The rest of the cast, primarily kitchen help, are convincing in their small roles. The only disappointment is Ulrich Thomsen's good neighbor Sam. You just don't get enough of the guy,
Techs are decent, all around, with photography by Michael Bertl providing the fast moving camera that helps capture the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant kitchen. When the lens enters Martha's realm at restaurant Lido, the images get bright, almost washed out, defining it as the chef's fiefdom.
"Mostly Martha" is a bright, light modern day family parable that wears its heart on its sleeve for all to see. Sure it's predictable, but the quality of the writing, directing and acting (and some well placed songs by Dean Martin, Louis Prima and others) help to make it a movie worth catching. I give it a B-.
Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck, "Der Bewegte Mann") is Hamburg's celebrity chef, revered by her customers, tolerated by Lido restaurant owner Frida (Sibylle Canonica, "Beyond Silence"), who sends her to a shrink (August Zirner) for her rigid obsessiveness. When Martha's sister is killed in a car accident, she's left to care for her 8 year old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), until she can locate Lina's long-gone Italian father. With her routine thrown into disarray, Frida hires Italian chef Mario (Sergio Castellitto, "The Starmaker") to help in the kitchen. Tempers flare, sparks leap and palates sparkle in "Mostly Martha."
Working from her own script, Sandra Nettelbeck makes her feature directorial debut with a souffle concocted from such films as "Big Daddy," "Big Night" and "Italian for Beginners." While its premise is wholly unoriginal, Gedeck and Castellitto are charming and young Foerste is refreshingly ordinary.
Martha and Frida act like "Big Night's" Primo and Secondo, with cuisine and commerce always at odds. Martha's a prima donna whose demand for perfection overwhelms her life and obscures the problems of those, like her heavily pregnant sous chef Lea (Katja Studt), around her. Lina's arrival completely upsets Martha's life. Ironically she can't get the girl to eat, nor does she succeed in getting her to school on time. Only when she brings the girl to work do things begin to look up.
The film's at its best in the kitchen, where Castellitto's Mario provides pasta and joie de vivre. Threatened Martha, who literally cools off in the kitchen's freezer, begins to warm up when Mario's spaghetti psychology entices Lina to eat. Once the threesome are established as a makeshift family of sorts, Lina's dad arrives to bring her home to Italy and life decisions must be made.
"Mostly Martha" (the film's German title translates to "Three Stars") takes its cue from every film that's ever found a single adult suddenly become responsible for a child. The cold climate/warm climate analogies of "Italian for Beginners" are present everywhere, from the restaurant's name to Lina's paternity. The cliched caring neighbor is present in the form of Sam (Ulrich Thomsen, "Celebration"), an architect whose romantic timing with Martha is off, but whose babysitting availability is always on.
Gedeck, who resembles Rachel Weisz, acts confident in the kitchen (the actors all attended cooking school before filming) and tentative outside of it. She's funny when upbraiding a disgruntled customer, exasperating when colliding with Mario and touching when fighting for Lina. She makes the audience want Martha to win. Castellitto is a teddy bear bearing comfort food who brings music into Martha's sterile kitchen. Foerste, in her film debut, is a real little girl pained by her mother's death. Studt is a nice presence as the mother to be in chef's whites. Canonica brings the only sour note, reacting too harshly to her chef's foibles.
Nettelbeck's debut is likeable thanks to its cast, its cuisine and its quirky tunes.
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