Soul Food 

*Mostly Martha (PG)
German with English subtitles

Paramount Classics

Just what we need: another gourmet foodie's fantasy chef love story. Right?

Wrong. Thank goodness Mostly Martha, in spite of what it looks to be in the trailers, turns out to be something altogether different.

Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Sandra Nettlebeck, Mostly Martha is the droll, touching and frequently dark story of Martha Klein, one of the best chefs in Germany ("second best," according to her boss), a fierce perfectionist so neurotically driven that she has no ability to enjoy any aspect of her professionally successful life. Martha suits up in blistering white every night in the kitchen of a fashionable urban bistro and whips up masterpieces with the precision of a blowtorch operator. Not a drop is spilled or wasted, her staff is held to exacting standards, the atmosphere is suitably sober and professional -- and no damn fun. Martha's prone to tangling with customers who dare to question her preparations and her boss has ordered her to go to therapy. We're privy to some of her hilariously nondisclosing sessions on the therapist's couch and to meltdown moments in the kitchen when the perturbed chef retreats into the cold, dark interior of the walk-in freezer.

Martha's a mess, folks, but her life is flawless.

Enter Lina, Martha's 8-year-old traumatized niece, who comes to live with her aunt after her reckless mother is killed in a car crash. Her father is Italian and can't be located, so Martha takes her in with all the warmth of a prison warden. Lina's presence ruffles Martha's rigid existence and begins to defrost her chilly exterior. At the same time, chaos erupts in the kitchen when the boss hires a new sous-chef, Mario, to help take over some of Martha's duties. Affable and Italian, Mario is everything that Martha is not -- a natural cook deeply in touch with the sensuality of food, in love with the creative process.

Mostly Martha sticks to the Martha/Lina conundrum admirably, allowing Mario to edge his way in only to become the seasoning that finishes the final dish. Martina Gedeck is wonderfully subtle and convincing as Martha, a woman who doesn't know how to like herself or her life, and Maxime Foerste provides a natural, endearing touch as little lost Lina. Sergio Castellitto as Mario looks as though he might burst into song at any moment, but the director keeps him under wraps, letting his natural exuberance shine through while not allowing him to overwhelm the delicate balance of the film's central story.

Quietly told, adeptly filmed and skillfully acted, Mostly Martha is a pleasant character study that happens to utilize food and gourmet cooking as a platform. There are plenty of shots of glistening plates of fashionably prepared foods, but they are not nearly as enticing as the story of the emotionally inept chef who manages to bring them to the table every night.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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