Penelope Cruz battles cancer in Julio Medem’s Spanish drama
Written and directed by Julio Medem, Ma Ma is a film interested in the spaces between sadness and joy yet it’s one that often gets lost along the way. Instead of exploring these emotions with clear-eyed care, Medem revs and sputters into more standard territory. The third act, in particular, shifts the picture a bit and transforms it into something less novel than what could have been. It’s a choice which requires no further introspection from the viewer. The reluctance to challenge the audience’s perceptions and notions is disappointing.
Penelope Cruz is easily the main attraction of Ma Ma, and, if not for her, the Spanish language film surely would have been less likely to receive international distribution. She plays Magda, the mother of a young, soccer-obsessed boy. The film opens on her doctor’s visit in which she ultimately learns she has breast cancer. She’s recently lost her teaching job and her husband has been dallying with a younger blonde, later resulting in a separation and divorce. Things are not going well for Magda, yet she generally perseveres. At her son’s soccer game she meets a scout for Real Madrid named Arturo (Luis Tosar), who receives devastating news about his wife and daughter in the middle of a match. A bond between Magda and Arturo slowly forms.
For much of the early sections of Ma Ma, the film moves quickly and with grace. It introduces Magda’s doctor Julian, who hopes to adopt a young Russian girl whose picture he proudly displays on his desk. He’s kind of too good to be true – a singer with soulful eyes and a warm doctorly manner. We can forgive some of these things but the dullness – emotionally and otherwise – that follows is tough to look past. Magda’s prognosis takes a turn for the worst and so does the movie. She becomes pregnant and is resolved to have the child, inspired in part by Natasha, the blonde-haired Siberian girl from Julian’s picture. It’s here that any eccentricity fades and Ma Ma becomes a somewhat straightforward cancer movie.
Visually it’s sterile, narratively it’s locked inside itself. Medem, who’s made a career out of provocative fare like Sex and Lucia and Room in Rome, struggles to overcome the perceived stigma about a lack of substance in his work. He dials down any sense of sensationalism, at least in the U.S. version – there’s an apparent deleted scene lurking around the internet with a topless Cruz and three naked men – in favor of messages and uplift via sadness or something like it. Indeed, part of what frustrates about this movie is that it has the opportunity to explore where death, tragedy and despair conflict with hope, optimism and rebirth yet it’s generally content to hint at these things without really expressing a meaningful point of view. The film and Cruz’s magnetic performance rope us in but ultimately fail to deliver.
Ma Ma gets a Blu-ray release from Oscilloscope Laboratories in the U.S., in a region-free edition. It’s also coming out in the UK from Metrodome in October but, as far as I can tell, only via DVD.
The O-scope release presents the film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It looks quite good, with crisp images and detail and absent any damage.
Audio comes in a Spanish language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that nicely does the job in terms of dialogue and melodramatically sagging music. English subtitles are available but optional.
There’s a making-of featurette on the disc, billed as a behind the scenes with Medem and Penelope Cruz. The theatrical trailer is also here.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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