Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 05, 2002
Sour Kraut

Mostly Martha is too thin to be the next great food film.


Great food films come to us from all over the globe: Denmark (Babette’s Feast), Taiwan (Eat Drink Man Woman), Mexico (Like Water for Chocolate). U.S. audiences tend to find these films more palatable than other foreign products — you don’t need to know much about another country’s culture to appreciate the presentation of mouth-watering food. Mostly Martha is Germany’s attempt to get in on the action, but it has the air of a film that wants to be light and airy and doesn’t know how.

Martha (Martina Gedeck) is an irascible chef at a restaurant in a German resort town who’s passionate only about her work — when customers complain about the food, she bursts out of the kitchen and yells at them. She lives a solitary existence, but that comes to a sudden end when her sister dies in a car accident, leaving Martha to take care of her 8-year-old niece Lina (Maxime Foerste). As the girl makes demands on Martha’s time, her boss (Sibylle Canonica) goes against Martha’s wishes and hires an Italian sous chef named Mario (Sergio Castellitto) to help run things, creating tension in the kitchen.

Compared with other German films, this one’s built pretty close to the ground. First-time filmmaker Sandra Nettelbeck clears out any metaphysical speculations and concentrates on telling a realistic story. It’s good that the film doesn’t take the Hollywood approach of giving each character a speech to give vent to all their feelings. Unfortunately, it still states all its themes too baldly: Martha’s childlessness is underscored by the presence of a very pregnant cook (Katja Studt) working for her; Lina’s refusal to eat parallels Martha’s own parsimonious eating habits; and a hearty, life-affirming Italian guy has to show them how to live joyously.

This last development is leavened quite a bit by Castellitto, a super actor in both Italian films and other European productions. He plays Mario as someone who knows he fulfills a certain stereotype, and that knowledge gives an understated, mischievous cool to what he does. The only other character who lifts the general gloom around the proceedings is Martha’s psychotherapist (August Zirner), who’s properly befuddled by a patient who cooks incessantly for him and is there only because her boss has ordered her to get therapy.

As we all know, food movies can redeem themselves of any weaknesses by making us hungry enough to hit the nearest restaurant — last year’s Tortilla Soup, a remake of Eat Drink Man Woman, didn’t have anything like the subtlety of the original film, but from a culinary standpoint, it was every bit the equal of Ang Lee’s movie. Mostly Martha makes the mistake of treating the kitchen as an ordinary workplace. What fun is that?

One note: In the scenes that take place in the kitchen, the actors don’t wear hairnets or any kind of headwear to keep their hair from getting in the food. As of press time, I haven’t been able to find out whether this is an inaccuracy on the film’s part or if German restaurant workers really go about their jobs bareheaded. Either way, it’s one more distraction in a movie that badly needs some flavoring.

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