This is a simple but intense film, elegantly shot, with a crisp minimalist style. Despite its almost prosaic plot, an electric current runs through it. David Darling’s stunning score picks up early and keeps running. Most notable is a melancholy single piano and a jazz beat that sounds like a German version of Leonard Cohen.
Like the film’s understated technical elements, its refreshingly terse dialogue leaves much unsaid. Gredeck’s strong and nuanced performance communicates more in a glance than in any line. Much of this mute restraint is due to Nettelbeck’s disciplined direction. There’s something to be said here about women directing women, as is demonstrated by the subtlety Nettelbeck elicits from Gredeck.
Martha is an obsessive-compulsive loner whose only mode of communication is food. She allows her work at the restaurant to consume her and become her philosophy. Though she speaks little of her outlook on life, Martha’s voice-overs — delivered during therapy sessions — hint at deeper problems. In them, she offers beautifully articulated analogies in which she compares life to cooking. Listen for one in which she describes the best way to kill a lobster.
The film is carried by Martha, but it is the eccentric Mario, who sings and dances in her kitchen, who steals the show. Who else but an Italian could finally pull loose the bun from Martha’s hair and teach her to savor food and love? How could she resist a line like, “the world would be a sad place without your pigeons and truffles”?
The sparks between them are the source of comedy in the film — as demonstrated when Martha holds a creme brulee torch between the two of them and accidentally lights her apron on fire. The sexual energy, communicated without so much as a word or a touch, is intense and thrilling to watch. You know a film has power when the incredibly sensual love scene occurs at the kitchen table over a pot of soup.
In a careful film about a woman overcoming her inability to communicate with others, the fairy tale ending you secretly hope for and too easily receive is a little untrue. It clashes with Martha’s bottled personality that, though developed with discipline and restraint, seems to uncork so easily. Despite the slightly disappointing aftertaste, “Mostly Martha” deserves all the accolades it garners (official selection at the London, Locarno and Toronto film festivals). If you loved the sensuous nature of “Like Water for Chocolate” and the delicious cinematography of “Eat Drink Man Woman,” go see this film — just not on an empty stomach.