A quiet, lovely film from Germany - is that an oxymoron? After Fassbinder, Wenders and Tykwer, we expect fireworks, fantasy and irony, but in "Mostly Martha" we get a warm and calming study of how a woman so tightly wound you wonder if she can even relax enough to breathe properly, is opened up to life and love.
Martha (Martina Gedeck) is the chef at the Lido, a top restaurant in Hamburg; she is a perfectionist and runs her kitchen with an iron fist. She lives alone, and lives only for her work. But then a terrible tragedy strikes. Her sister, a single mother with an 8-year-old daughter, traveling to visit Martha, is killed in an accident on the road, and her daughter Lina (Maxime Foerste) must stay with her, at least until Lina's long-estranged father, the Italian Giuseppi, can be located and Lina sent to live with him.
But writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck doesn't make it easy for either Martha or Lina. Martha has no idea of how to care for a child, and is frightened of learning. Lina, as stubborn as Martha, will not yield to her aunt's timid excursions into parenting. Faute de mieux, Martha starts taking Lina to work with her, telling her just to keep out of the way. But staying up till midnight isn't the greatest thing for an 8-year-old, what with Martha oversleeping in the morning and Lina playing hooky from school. And then into the film marches newly hired sous-chef Mario (Sergio Castellito), who is to be the instrument of redemption and healing for everyone. Not only has he a way with Lina (he gets her to start eating after a hunger strike), he will have his way with Martha before the film is over, warming and opening her to emotions she had spent years running away from.
Those who've read Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" will be curious to see just how a fine kitchen works, and "Mostly Martha" won't let them down. The prep work, the cook line, the tasting, even the occasional boorish customer, are all there, and Gedeck is believable both as a chef and as a clueless would-be parent. Though the film occasionally teeters on the brink of pathos, then rebounds into a moment of sitcom burlesque, it always rights itself in time to hold us to its breast. It's a small film but a lovely one.