Good food films make you want to eat but the great ones make you want to cook. Mostly Martha has all the ingredients of the latter: it is a feast for the senses, from the mise en place – julienning carrots here, encasing tortellini in sheets of pasta there – to the cast iron pans, chef’s knives and jars of preserved goods that put our home kitchens to shame.
Working in a busy restaurant in snowy Germany, head chef Martha (Martina Gedeck) is a perfectionist. The kitchen is her sanctuary and, when it gets too much, the walk-in fridge is her refuge. Uptight but passionate, no one dares disrupt her finely balanced equilibrium. But when her sister dies in a car crash, Martha must take in her niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), while adapting her strict routines to the needs of a child, finding the time and the heart to step away from the stove.
Lina, silent in her grief, struggles to adjust to life with Martha, who has no recipe to follow for how to be a parent. Martha tries but fails to entice Lina out of her shell with food. So enter Mario (Sergio Castellitto), a charismatic Italian chef hired in Martha’s absence. The life of the party, Mario dances around the kitchen, sautéing to the beat of the music and injecting fun into the high-octane kitchen.
Martha resists Mario’s every move, objecting not only to his culinary additions (“gnocchi, of all things!”) but to his carefree attitude to life. But when she enlists his help in the search to find Lina’s father (also an Italian), their friendship flourishes. Fear not – what could be a cliched romance is far from it. You’ll fall in love with Mario, too.
Mario also enchants Lina, who, after weeks of being morose, cracks a smile as she tries his pasta doused in parmesan. Like her aunt, she develops a taste for cooking, and the kitchen, it turns out, saves her.
Five years after the release of Mostly Martha, a German film, there was a US remake, No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart and a young Abigail Breslin. Hamburg is swapped for New York, where Zeta-Jones plays Kate, a similarly stubborn chef in a Manhattan restaurant. Parts of the script are mirrored line for line but the film has nothing on Mostly Martha. It just can’t match the beautiful chemistry of the original and feels insincere by comparison.
Gedeck’s portrayal of Martha is a showstopper – her expressions of love, contempt, betrayal and joy are subtle and skilled. Her trips to her therapist, wonderfully played by August Zirner, are deftly funny, as she muses about pigeons and truffles with such detail that you can almost taste them. And with a jubilant soundtrack that includes jazz piano from Keith Jarrett and Italian musician Paolo Conte’s upbeat song Via Con Me (impossible not to sing along to), Mostly Martha is a hidden gem. If you’ve seen No Reservations, you must try Mostly Martha – and if you haven’t watched No Reservations, just savour this instead.