In this case, Martha is Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck), a supremely talented chef, who lords over the kitchen of the Lido, an upscale Hamburg restaurant. Martha is so obsessed with food preparation and presentation that she'll confront any customer that sends her creations back to the kitchen. Because Martha is "the second best" chef in the city, the Lido's owner, Frida (Sibylle Canonica), refrains from firing Klein, but has demanded that she see a therapist. On the shrink's couch, Martha talks only of recipes. Over his objections, she even prepares meals for him to eat at his desk.
Martha's regimented life is disrupted when her sister, a single mother, perishes in an auto accident. Martha is left to care for Lina (Maxine Foerste), her 8-year old niece, while attempting to contact Giuseppe, the girl's father living somewhere in Italy. In the meantime, Frida hires another chef, Mario (Sergio Castellitto), to augment her kitchen staff. Mario's free and easy personality is the antithesis of Martha the Control Freak. Martha finds her life spinning into chaos, especially when it becomes apparent that she's failing miserably as a surrogate Mom to Lina, who remains depressed over her mother's death and so passively hostile that she won't even eat the perfectly prepared and arranged dishes that Martha sets before her.
Had MOSTLY MARTHA been made in Tinseltown, it would've inevitably starred Meg Ryan as Martha, Tom Hanks as Mario, and some adorable child star as the incorrigible Lina. The characters of this German production are all eminently likeable and credible, and they concoct a just-right mix of comedy and drama that perhaps wouldn't have been achieved in an American version. While the ending is also eminently predictable, the filmscript, which assigns Martha a (cinematically) unusual profession and places much of the action inside the choreographed frenzy of the Lido's kitchen, is clever enough to elevate the movie, in my opinion, above three stars.
I heartily recommend this charmer if you like to cook, frequently eat in high-end restaurants, and/or enjoy films with a cosmopolitan, European ambience.
Her relationship with her 8 year old niece Lina, so well played by Maxime Foreste, is complex, understandable, and very moving, and the chemistry between Martha and Mario, (Sergio Castellitto is perfect in the part) is fabulous, complete opposites attracting. The supporting cast are all excellent, and director Nettelbeck plays Lina's mother in a touching video sequence.
The score by David Darling and Keith Jarrett is marvelous, with delicate sections of Arvo Part's music for one of the most tragic scenes, and includes a bit of Dean Martin's version of "Volare", and oh joy ! the irresistible, simply scrumptious "Via con Me" by Paolo Conte, a song so happy it would make a bear smile. The cinematography by Michael Bertel is also wonderful, with location shots of Hamburg and Italy, and overflowing vistas of delectable food.
I cried, I laughed out loud, and I will always remember this film; it is a small but polished gem.
Total running time is 109 minutes.
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