Mostly Martha

A woman (adorably dysfunctional for piquancy) meets her odd-couple match in a man just as delightfully oddball: Those are the major ingredients of a romantic comedy. But this German romance makes substitutions, heavier on the bitter than the sweet for the average American’s tastes.

The recipe for romance is a simple one. But as Mario (Sergio Castellitto) will remind us, it’s the simple recipes that reveal what the chef is made of. Writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck offers us a lukewarm plot of girl meets boy, girl (briefly) loses boy, girl gets boy back. But, like Nettelbeck’s titular heroine, Mostly Martha seems only capable of moments of deeply savoring life.

Neuroses, handled deftly, may bring out the sweetness of a heroine. But Martha’s psychological problems aren’t appetizing. She seems to take daily breaks from her duties of expertly crafting haute cuisine dishes as head chef of the Lido restaurant by escaping into the walk-in freezer for a cry. Nettlebeck makes a visual metaphor of this and the stainless-steel commercial refrigerator in Martha’s apartment: Martha is just as professional, closed-up and cold. The Lido’s owner and manager, Frida (Sibylle Canonica), makes weekly psychotherapy a condition of Martha’s continued employment.

But a tragic turn of events throws the care of Martha’s 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), into her lap. Then Frida brings another chef into Martha’s inner sanctum, the Lido’s kitchen. Our heroine walks into work to find Mario blaring Italian music and singing along in full voice.

It’s Mario who fires up whatever comedy and romance this film has. But that heat feels artificial. Lina’s arrival, though, sparks a melodramatic subplot and the film’s deepest and most truly touching moments, thawing Mostly Martha.

Martha tells her therapist that a true chef can taste the poor quality of a single ingredient in a dish. Ironically it’s both romance and comedy that this beautifully presented “romantic comedy” lacks.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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