‘Ma Ma’: Toronto Review

Ma Ma Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Ma Ma Still - H 2015

Apart from Cruz, it's more like Meh Meh.

One of Spain’s leading auteurs returns with a cancer movie starring Penelope Cruz.

Julio Medem’s filmography includes some of the most distinctive titles of 90s Spanish cinema, but his two features since 2000’s Sex and Lucia -- Chaotic Ana and Room in Rome -- were at best uneven. Ma Ma maintains the focus on women, but does little to quell the doubts about Medem’s career trajectory. Looking rather like the unveiling of a new, audience-friendly, non-provocative Medem who’s hesitant about whether to follow the market or his muse, Ma Ma features a melodramatically weepie story line; elegant, fashion catalog design; dreams of soccer glory; and Penelope Cruz as a young mother battling breast cancer.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, Cruz’s aces performance apart, very little about this extremely disappointing film feels real, and some of it is risible. But presales have been strong, driven presumably by the presence of Cruz, and it’s facile message, expressed more concisely by Eric Idle at the end of Life of Brian, might mean that Ma Ma’s world of fake emotion could indeed work well for the younger, more impressionable demographic.

In the opening scenes, unemployed Magda (Cruz, doing her considerable best in a film she co-produced) is diagnosed as having breast cancer, for which she’s being treated by gynecologist Julian (Asier Etxeandia), a dreamy, soft-spoken chap with unlimited time available to deal with his patients. In the stands at a soccer game, watching her talented son Dani (Teo Planell), she meets soccer scout Arturo (Luis Tosar), who receives the news that there’s been a car crash involving his wife and son.

A friendship develops between Magda and Arturo, based on mutual emotional support: Dani’s Raul (Alex Brendemuhl) is an implausibly callous philosophy teacher who’s scarcely to be seen. Soon it will fall to Julian to reveal that her cancer is terminal: she starts having mysterious dreams of a pale girl in snow, walking dreamily towards camera.

Julian, meanwhile, is that rare beast, a doctor who sings 70s Spanish pop songs to his patients -- to say the least, an extremely dodgy directorial decision. After the gyno starts warbling over Magda’s bed, Ma Ma never really recovers. It’s a thin line between directorial fearlessness and directorial foolhardiness.

Medem’s early work created distinctive worlds, poetic, eerie and strange. They were driven by their own logic, and bizarre though it sometimes was, they were working in the service of a vision. But here, there is an absence of any comprehensible world or vision, and very little logic. Magda, an unemployed teacher, lives in a great apartment. How come Julian has so much free time? What happens to Dani’s soccer dreams, so crucial at the start? And yes, the continual suggestions that Magda’s illness have isolated her from the world come over loud and clear, but why does she not have even a single female friend? Indeed, a nurse (Silvia Abascal) apart, where are all the women the final credits tell us the film is dedicated to?

Watching Ma Ma is thus an unsettling experience in all sorts of unintended ways. It’s as though Medem, having realized that he’d accidentally written a conventional melodrama, suddenly decided at the shooting stage that he’d have to use style to make it all more interesting. This is clearest when a kiss cuts to medical images of a pulsating heart: and it’s here when the viewer realizes that the director is somewhat questionably using breast cancer as a platform for his art, rather than tackling it with the human sensitivity its subject surely demands.

Performances are good, but characterization is sketchy. Tosar, one of Spain’s finest and highest-profile character actors, here mostly hangs around weeping or looking glum. If meeting Magda has been some kind of redemption for Arturo, then he’s mostly keeping it to himself: and strangely, these two friends whose lives have been blighted barely openly discuss the elephant in the room. Dani is an off-the-peg son, happy to score winning goals as his proud Mom cheers from the sidelines and ask winning, puzzled questions.

Cruz’s best work, as in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver and Sergio Castellitto’s Don’t Move, has been done in the role of a suffering woman driven by inner dignity. Ma Ma, which offers her something similar, is one of her finest performances, and by some distance she is the strongest thing about it: scatty, forgetful, moody, with a winsome, trusting innocence about her, Magda is a real, rounded woman in an unreal, monodimensional world. It’s the sort of faux philosophical, faux poetic world in which someone muses “We need the sea in summer”, and someone else replies “Yes, if we didn’t, it wouldn’t be summer”.

Ma Ma unfolds in varying locations of chilly extraterrestrial paleness, as though it was a melodrama beamed in from Mars. If cancer is a dirty, messy business, physically and emotionally, then very little of it comes over. Beautiful to watch and elegantly designed but remote, there’s the sense that the actors are struggling to give it their gritty, realistic best despite the hyper-stylized setting in which they’ve been placed. Perhaps Medem opted for this stripped-back look to allow the viewers to focus exclusively on the intense emotions at hand, but all it does is distract from them.

Throw in regular, alienating jump-cuts, lovingly-lensed technology, and an occasional close-up of a puzzling symbol -- Magda’s nipple, beautifully preserved on ice as a souvenir, a crab in the sand -- and the viewer's alienation is complete.

Production companies: Morena Films, Ma Ma Peliculas, Mare Nostrum Productions
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Luis Tosar, Asier Etxeandia, Teo Planell, Silvia Abascal
Director, screenwriter: Julio Medem
Producers: Penelope Cruz, Julio Medem, Alvaro Longoria
Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica
Production designer: Montse Sanz
Editors: Julio Medem, Ivan Aledo
Composer: Alberto Iglesias
Sales: Seville International (Int’l), Creative Artists Agency (US)

PG, 111 minutes