By Kennedy Thompson
Mostly Martha tells the story of an accomplished and high-strung head chef who learns to loosen up when she is faced with unexpected circumstances. As a renowned German chef who hails precision and timing, her transformation proves difficult. Not until she is saddled with raising her sister’s daughter, Lina, does Martha begin to relinquish control in her life. Food serves as a marker of Martha’s progress in melting her frigid demeanor. Recurring vignettes and a dinner scene in which Martha is pushed out of her comfort zone by an Italian chef show her working through the death of her sister and her pre-existing problems relinquishing control and maintaining interpersonal relationships.
Two sets of recurring vignettes expose Martha’s progress: one of her therapy sessions and the other of family meals at the restaurant. The film begins with Martha lying on her therapist’s sofa, spouting instructions for making pigeon with truffles and admitting she is only there because her boss requires she attend. It is clear in Martha’s approach to stress-management, which involves frequent trips to stand in the freezer at work, that she needs therapy. In the second therapy session, the last before her sister’s car wreck, Martha meticulously plates a meal for her therapist on his desk (even though he has told her not to cook for him anymore) as she babbles about how difficult it is to coordinate 47 customers at once. During the third therapy session, Martha discusses a significant issue for the first time; although, it is still food related. At this point in the film, Martha has taken care of Lina for a while and a new chef, Mario, has joined her in the kitchen, both of which disrupt her once orderly flow. In the therapy session, Martha compares Mario’s working in her kitchen with two people trying to drive one car. Serving as a sort of tipping point, the scene shows Martha quite stressed. After the session, Martha is more vulnerable and affectionate in her relationship with Lina and eventually Mario too.
Reluctantly, Martha concedes to her attraction to Mario. As they work, her guarded glares become lingering moments. Meanwhile, Mario, an eccentric force of energy, wins the heart of Lina and manages to get her to eat, which Lina has barely done since her mother’s death. Scenes of family meals, the time during which kitchen staff share food before a shift, coincide with Martha’s blooming progress. Camera angle and mise-en-scène denote Martha’s relationship with others as she learns to open up. The first family meal scene, a medium shot, pans to Martha in the corner, reading the newspaper and neglecting her staff. Mostly blocked by a barrier of people, the scene occurs just before Martha receives news of her sister’s wreck. Martha has not
yet been thrown into a world of chaos, and therefore has not learned to relax. Her isolated position denotes her unwillingness to let people in. After the next family meal in which Martha angrily agrees to one bite of Mario’s pasta before storming away, a more lighthearted episode occurs, indicating the strengthening relationship between Martha and Lina. The camera tracks a plate at a medium close-up across the table in such a way that the viewer feels part of the meal and the staff seems more united. Lina sits at the table for the first time, and the shot ends on Martha, smiling as she looks up from whatever is in her lap.
Immediately after the meal, the camera cuts to Martha observing Mario in the kitchen as he teaches Lina to cook. Signs of Martha’s mellowing and her budding relationship with Mario are found in her asking Mario for help finding Lina’s father, her thanking Mario for getting Lina to eat, and her agreeing to have Mario over for dinner. It is not until Lina suggests that the three share a meal at Martha’s home that she completely opens up. The scene begins with Mario’s exiling Martha to the living room so that he and Lina can prepare the meal. Lina shuts the door in Martha’s face, but the scene does not dwell on their separation; the camera immediately cuts to the three eating on the floor together. The dinner is far less proper than the usual meals at Martha’s plain kitchen table in her stark white dinning area. Lina and Mario sit on either side of Martha, forming a symmetrical composition with Martha as the connective tissue. Martha’s nervousness during the imprudent meal shows in her attempt to fetch plates from the kitchen. Lina, who has already begun to eat with her hands, and Mario block her and urge her to embrace the casual meal.
A clink of Mario and Martha’s wine glasses arouses lively, non-diegetic music that plays throughout the scene. Close-ups of starbursts made of asparagus and twirling noodles make the mouth of any viewer salivate. Hands pop from every direction, in and out of the food-filled shots so that it is not clear whose hand belongs to whom. The camera shifts back and forth from close- ups of the hands and disappearing food to medium-range shots of the three as they laugh and enjoy the meal. Words come out of their mouths, but they are somewhat muffled and overpowered by the song. In a word, the scene is joyous. The carefree dinner is interrupted when Martha walks into the kitchen and finds the mess Mario has left in her kitchen. Mario quickly enters and helps Martha overcome an impending panic attack. Joy returns as Mario and Martha eye each other while playing pick-up sticks with Lina, and Martha audibly laughs for the first time in the film. A near kiss between Mario and Martha ends the scene.
If Martha was partly guarded before the dinner, she has now teetered over to the side of vulnerability. A scene in which Martha allows Mario to blindfold her and feed her indicates her trust in him is deep enough to surrender to his control. Shortly after, Lina’s father comes to bring her to Italy, and in her absence, Martha is forced to acknowledge the bond that has grown between them. Unable to withstand the distance, Martha makes the ultimate sacrifice by quitting her job so that she can go with Mario to bring Lina home. A dinner scene with family and friends celebrates Martha and Mario’s wedding and the start of their life as a family of three. A pan across a full and lively table consummates their happiness. The film ends as it began, with a therapy session. Martha and her therapist sit on the couch together for the first time, and the therapist laments over his failed pie. Martha helps him work through possible missteps, making it appear that their roles have reversed. She is healed and no longer needs help opening up.
Mostly Martha. Directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, performance by Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste, and Sergio Castellitto, 2001.