Mostly Martha is a 2001 German romantic comedy written and directed by Sandra Nettlebeck, starring Martina Gedeck, Sergio Castelitto, and Maxime Foerste. It is a quiet and enjoyable film about a workaholic chef (Gedeck) who, through hardship and tragedy, learns how to open her heart and enjoy life more through the influence of her family and friends.
Martha Klein (Gedeck) is a chef at a gourmet restaurant in Hamburg, Germany. She is a perfectionist and dedicated to her cooking as an art, but has poor social skills, loses her temper with a picky customer over an undercooked foie gras, and only gets away with her attitude by being the second-best chef in the city. Her boss makes her go to a therapist to improve her social skills, but she spends the therapy sessions avoiding discussions about her control issues, preferring to discuss her philosophies on cooking and cooking meals for her therapist as a way of “talking” to him. At work, she handles her stress by taking brief trips to the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator for breathers.
Tragedy strikes when her sister is killed in a car accident, leaving behind her 8-year old daughter Lina (Foerste). Martha is now her guardian, and struggling to balance her high-powered career with parenting. Lina is a reserved young girl who is grieving her mother’s death, becoming withdrawn and depressed and refusing to eat. Lina’s father is an Italian man who has been absentee in her life, and Lina only knows his first name and nationality. Martha and Lina aren’t close, and Martha prefers to let Lina grieve on her own while she focuses on her career.
But just as Martha is trying to adjust to a great change in her personal life, her professional life takes a hit too: her boss has hired an easygoing and charismatic sous-chef named Mario (Castelitto), who Martha sees as a threat to her position as head chef of the kitchen. She says of him to her therapist, “Two chefs in one kitchen is like two people driving a car. It’s impossible.” She is possessive of the hard work that it took her to be chef in the kitchen, and is fearful that Mario will usurp her. Mario, meanwhile, admires her talent and drive, and chose the restaurant to work for her. His relaxed attitude and love of jazz turns Martha’s kitchen from a precise factory of fine food into a light-hearted environment to work in, and the shake-up to her professional life scares her.
As Martha and Lina’s relationship slowly gains trust, Martha brings Lina to the kitchen to learn the basics of cooking. Lina takes to Mario’s warmth and playfulness, and opens up from her grief to enjoy Italian food and find joy in life again. Martha begins to trust Mario too, by seeing his genuine care and concern for her niece, and a romance blossoms forth, though not without complications in Martha’s life.
The film has a good, slow, and quiet pace, as the scenes unfold to allow the audience to get to know the characters and be in their world. Whereas it is the rhythm of the kitchen, jazz music, the classic Italian song Volare, or Martha’s transformation from a tightly-wound workaholic to a more giving and openly loving person, the film has a beautiful simplicity to it. Gedeck plays Martha with gritty honesty, with a life well-lived on her face, in a stunning performance. Foerste is natural and realistic in her performance as a grieving and reserved child, and Castelitto is warm and likable as the loving Mario.
The film had an American remake in 2007 as No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Abigail Breslin, and Aaron Eckhart, but Mostly Martha is the superior film. It isn’t hackneyed or contrived, the film is not only focused on the romantic comedy genre, and the film is centered around an accomplished and intelligent woman learning to open herself up to the pleasures and joys in life beyond her single-minded career ambitions. It is really a wonderful film, and I highly recommend it.