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Paramount Studios presents
Mostly Martha (Bella Martha) (2002)

"Two chefs in one kitchen is like two people driving one car."
- Martha (Martina Gedeck)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: February 17, 2003

Stars: Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste, Sybille Canonica, Sergio Castellitto
Director: Sandra Nettlebeck

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material and mild language
Run Time: 01h:46m:47s
Release Date: February 18, 2003
UPC: 097363408048
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+B+ D-

DVD Review

Let me begin by admitting to a certain prejudice: I came to this disc finding the term "German cuisine" to be oxymoronic. I feared the worst, a film about great heaping plates of wienerschnitzel and sauerkraut, everything deep fried, and coming with a side of angioplasty.

Happily, Mostly Martha disabused me of those obvious stereotypes—there's not a spaetzle to be seen on screen. Instead, what's here is a smart and well-made comedy, wise both about the ways of the human heart and such things as the proper temperature at which to poach foie gras. (Believe me, the temptation to go on with the cooking metaphors is powerful—e.g., a recipe for romantic comedy success!—but I promise to do what I can to lay off the junk.)

Martina Gedeck plays the title character, the chef at a posh Hamburg restaurant, where she turns out marvelously prepared meals for a clientele that doesn't always appreciate it. One customer sends back the foie gras, insisting that it's undercooked, and Martha storms out of the kitchen to berate him: "If you want liverwurst, go to a snack bar." She's more than a little tightly wound, but insists that she's not obsessive: "I'm not compulsive, I'm precise."

Martha's world is upended by a phone call: there's been a car accident, her sister has been killed, and Martha must now look after her niece, little Lina. While Martha is out tending to family business, her boss hires a temporary replacement: Mario (Sergio Castellitto), whose exuberant style is very different from Martha's. Mario likes to blast and singing along with Dean Martin and Louis Prima as he cooks, for instance. Martha returns to the job, and while Mario is now her subordinate, she can't help but think that he's looking to oust her. How Martha contends with this challenge at work and with the demands of raising her daughter's child comprise the bulk of the movie.

Sandra Nettelbeck, who wrote and directed, is insightful both about human behavior and about the healing power of food—the film is such a success because its central character is so strongly drawn, and is well played by Gedeck. Martha isn't a Food Network refugee looking to kick it up a notch—rather, as a character she bears some obvious similarities to Denise, also a chef, one of a group of protagonists in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and on some level Martha is the female analogue to Anthony Bourdain, who documented his own culinary derring-do in Kitchen Confidential. (Both books are a terrific read, for foodies and others.)

Some of the story can be predictable—it's no great surprise, for instance, that Lina, who won't eat Martha's cooking and pines for the Italian father she has never met, digs sumptuously into a bowl of Mario's pasta—but as this is a genre piece, watching the conventions play themselves out is one of the pleasures of the film. And Nettelbeck seems very much at home in the kitchen—her camera moves are fluid and unobtrusive, but ably capture the kinetic energy in a high-end restaurant kitchen on a busy Friday night, and her use of color is smart, as well. The lush greens of the basil and saturated copper of the pots are contrasted well with the blues of the walk-in freezer, Martha's one place of refuge from the madness of rush hour.

The film may well leave you hungry for more than popcorn and Raisinets, but unlike, say, the timpano prepared in Big Night, Mostly Martha lacks the signature recipe or dish that the studio marketing department probably would have loved to use as a tie-in. The rewards of watching the film are ample nonetheless, and it's a film that's deeply satisfying on many levels.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The palette of the original print is well preserved, but there are occasional flecks, scratches and bits of debris interfering with the image quality on the DVD. Blacks are steady, and the moving camera shots won't induce nausea, in the manner that features shot with handhelds sometimes can.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 transfer sounds clear and crisp—most of the scenes are interiors and are dialogue-driven, so there isn't much room for the sound engineers to flex their muscles. But the clatter of the restaurant or the rush of traffic are well accounted for in the rear speakers, giving a sense of presence without interfering with the story.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Unfortunately, chaptering and English subtitles are the only extras.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Some extras would have been the cherry on the sundae, but even without them, Mostly Martha is a lovely and moving film about more than just food. It's smart and generous about love and work—and really, what else is there?—and more filling than a sack of Krispy Kremes.


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