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Mostly Martha

What happens when a career-driven woman has an orphaned child thrust into her life? Diane Keaton famously played it strictly for laughs in Baby Boom (1987). Nearly twenty-five years later, writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck took a 21st century approach to the same theme in Mostly Martha (2001).

The German-language film focuses on Hamburg chef Martha (Martina Gedeck), whose sole focus in life is her work. Her lack of social skills and high stress level reach the point that her boss, Frida (Sibylle Canonica), sends her to a therapist (August Zirner), which doesn't help. Martha's self-obsessed existence is shattered when her sister is killed in a car accident, leaving behind a traumatized eight-year-old, Lina (Maxime Foerste), who is now Martha's responsibility. Her world is upended further when fun loving, jazz aficionado, Italian sous-chef Mario (Sergio Castellitto) is hired and Martha is forced to work with someone who is her opposite in every way. Between Lina and Mario, Martha's outer shell is cracked like an egg, little by little.

Nettlebeck, who is a professed foodie, used food in Mostly Martha as her lead character's way of communicating, saying in an interview with IndieWire, "[S]he's totally convinced that it works. But you see, the thing is that it may work in her world, but it's not a substitute for the real thing. If you want to talk to somebody, you got to talk to them. You can't cook them a meal. It's nice, but it doesn't always work. [When] the kid doesn't want to eat, [i]t throws her, so she has to find a real way of communicating. In that way, she discovers that there is this whole other way of, like, connecting with people and not just through food."

With Nettelbeck (who gave up German law school to study film at San Francisco State University) at the helm and Michael Bertl behind the camera, the film went into production in March 2000, with a cast that included actors from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Denmark. Location shooting was done around Hamburg, Germany and at various spots in Italy. While on-set, Nettelbeck discovered that Sergio Castellitto's German wasn't clear enough for audiences to understand, and so he was dubbed in post-production by Frank Glaudbrecht.

Mostly Martha was a critical smash, playing at film festivals all over the world, including The Chicago Film Festival, Lecce Festival of European Cinema and the Locarno Film Festival, winning many awards for Sandra Nettelbeck, Sergio Castellitto and Martina Gedeck. The critics were likewise charmed by the film, with The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell calling it, "the latest addition -- and a quite adorable one -- to the cooking melo-comedy subgenre, where Big Night [1996] and Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? [1978] reside. [...] Ms. Nettelbeck seems to have achieved a balance of control and autonomy so that Mostly Martha doesn't feel as if it was directed by its central figure. The final confection is extremely enjoyable, though a few degrees shy of perfection."

Mostly Martha's success spawned two foreign-language remakes: No Reservations (2007), starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and the Spanish-language Chef's Special (2008).

By Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:

The Internet Movie Database
Judell, Brandon. "'Mostly Martha' Director Sandra Nettelbeck Wants to Eat, Make a Film a Year, and Put Down German Cinema" IndieWire 15 Aug 02.
Mitchell, Elvis. "A Single-Minded Cook Who Wakes Up to Life" The New York Times 16 Aug 02.
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