(photo credit: PR)
Penelope Cruz is very thin, but there is always something larger than life about her, and that presence is what saves Julio Medem’s Ma Ma from being just another melodrama.
Medem makes crowd-pleasing dramas with just enough pretension and stylish cinematography to get them into the lower reaches of the art-house cinema/film festival circuit. Unlike some art-house fare, where little happens, Medem’s movies tend to be overstuffed with plot. All these plot turns, which feature many coincidences, are meant to serve some larger point, usually about love, time or love over time.
In Ma Ma, he brings in references to the economic crisis in Spain, especially unemployment, but I couldn’t figure out what this was supposed to add to the story other than to show that life is tough.
Cruz plays Magda, a woman who has just lost her job as a teacher and received a message from her professor husband that he will be away all summer.
Certain that he will be having a fling with one of students, she fumes silently as she heads off to an appointment with Julian (Asier Etxeandia), her gynecologist, to have a lump in her breast checked out. Before you can say “Terms of Endearment,” she is diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
Heading off in a daze to watch her son, Dani (Teo Planell), play soccer, she bumps into Arturo (Luis Tosar, who starred in Mondays in the Sun), a scout for the Real Madrid junior team, who is interested in signing Dani to the team.
Just as she exults in this good news – her son dreams of a career as a professional soccer player – Arturo gets a call. There has been a car accident that has left his daughter dead and his wife in a coma. Cruz helps him get through this, all the while coping with her own breast cancer, for which she has to undergo chemotherapy before getting a mastectomy.
Julian, who is also apparently an oncologist and breast cancer surgeon, turns out to be the doctor we all dream of: competent, patient, reassuring, handsome and a great singer. He even goes to the beach and examines her while she is frolicking in the sea. Julian and his wife are planning to adopt a Siberian orphan named Natasha, and he keeps a framed photo of the girl on his desk, a picture that fascinates Magda and takes on great symbolic weight in the plot.
After Arturo’s wife dies, Magda and he become a couple. He helps her fight the cancer and acts as a father to her son. All the struggle ennobles her. Magda is one of those characters who represent the life force, and she becomes more luminous and wise after every setback, a bit like Ali MacGraw in Love Story. She brings Arturo back to life, and he finds new purpose with her. Although he experiences some lingering sadness over the loss of his first family, he never talks about them.
The focus of the movie is so firmly on Magda that his parallel tragedy exists only as a way of making him the ideal man to help her through her trials.
While this may sound so maudlin as to be unwatchable, Cruz infuses her character with so much charm and energy that you can’t look away from her, no matter how absurdly tragic and overdetermined the plot gets.
Cruz is virtually always the best thing about any movie she is in.
Given a role with some substance, like the seductive but selfdestructive artist in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) or some of her roles in Pedro Almodovar movies, she can give great performances.
It’s frustrating that in Ma Ma, which she also co-produced, she can’t go deeper into this role because there is no depth to any of the characters. While it’s fun watching her, in the end Ma Ma is a wasted opportunity.’