[Screen It]

(2002) (Martina Gedeck, Sergio Castellitto) (PG)

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Drama: A perfectionist chef finds her world unraveling when she takes in her orphaned niece and is joined by another chef in her restaurant kitchen.
Martha Klein (MARTINA GEDECK) is the head chef at Lido, a chic German restaurant. Noted as much for her confrontational encounters with complaining customers as she is for her great dishes, Martha lives by herself and regularly sees a therapist (AUGUST ZIRNER) about her state of mind.

Her life changes when her sister is killed in an accident, essentially leaving that woman's eight-year-old daughter, Lina (MAXIME FOERSTE), orphaned. When the girl recovers from her injuries, Martha informs her of the bad news regarding her mother as well as the fact that Lina will have to come and live with her. Lina isn't happy about this, and wonders about her biological father, Giuseppe Lorenzo (DIEGO RIBON), an Italian man who's been out of the picture and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Not sure of how to raise a young girl and balance that with working, Martha asks her new downstairs neighbor, Sam (ULRICH THOMSEN), for help, and tries to figure out how to make the girl happy and/or eat. With Martha distracted at work and one of the cooks, Lea (KATJA STUDT), ready to have her baby at any moment, their boss, Frida (SIBYLLE CANONICA), has brought in Italian chef Mario (SERGIO CASTELLITTO) to help out.

Martha is furious since it's her kitchen and sees the jovial Mario not only as her competition, but also as her possible replacement. As the two try to get along in the kitchen, Martha tries to figure out what to do with Lina while searching for Giuseppe. By bringing the girl to work, Martha then sets into motion a series of events that will change her life forever.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
As evidenced by the thousands upon thousands of cookbooks in circulation and their scores of recipes, it's obvious that cooking is a precise art where ingredients and instructions must usually be followed to a T to guarantee and achieve the desired results.

Yet, sometimes such rigid culinary doctrine can become bland, and a little spicy zest needs to be thrown in from time to time to stir things up and add more flavor. Such is the case with Martha Klein, the head chef at Lido, a small German restaurant.

While she no longer relies on recipes, her lifestyle, much like her cooking, is perfectly in order and under complete control. Or at least she'd want you to think that. You see, she's seeing a therapist and has a problem with getting along with others, accepting criticism of her work, or simply getting away from it and relaxing. Her cooking is her life and if anything threatens that, she reacts accordingly.

Thus, when some new ingredients are suddenly thrown into her mix, she begins to boil over and then comes to realize that life is indeed like what Tom Hanks' character stated more than once in "Forrest Gump."

That's the basic gist of "Mostly Martha," an engaging and well-made German import about such a chef. The rogue ingredient that suddenly makes its way into her life isn't some contrasting spice, but rather her orphaned, 8-year-old niece and a new chef who she initially sees as her competition and possible replacement.

Truth be told, the film doesn't really explore any new story or theme as the plot of a childless adult suddenly being burdened and challenged but ultimately enlightened by a young charge has been done before in films such as "Big Daddy" and "Stepmom."

Yet, like eating at a favorite restaurant, some chefs can do wonders with familiar material. In that sense, writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck ("Mammamia," "Loose Ends") has cooked up a tasty effort that thankfully avoids the dumb comedy of Adam Sandler's movie or the manipulative mawkishness of Julia Roberts' picture.

Instead, the film is more like efforts such as "Chocolat," "Big Night" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" where food serves as a backdrop and is celebrated and used as a symbolic element regarding the main plot. As was the case with those films and others of the culinary genre, the food is nearly a character itself, and cinematographer Michael Bertl (who filmed the director's previous works) has made sure to feature it prominently and get viewers' salivary glands flowing (although not to the point of some of those other films).

Despite the familiar material and rather basic plot, Nettelbeck manages to make the overall effort rather easy to swallow. That's thanks to some good dialogue, smartly written characters and strong performances from her able cast.

As the fastidious protagonist, Martina Gedeck ("Grune Wueste," "Krucke") is simply terrific and effortlessly makes us believe her occupation and personal predicament, as well as root for her happiness. Although I can't pinpoint who she reminds me of - perhaps she's an amalgamation of various actresses - this is a strong performance that could make her a star outside Germany.

Sergio Castellitto ("Va savior," "Libero Burro") is nearly as good playing the jovial Italian chef who keeps a smile on his face and in his heart despite the way Martha initially treats him. Although one can pretty much see where things are headed between their two characters, the chemistry between them is strong and the two play well off each other.

As the suddenly motherless eight-year-old, Maxime Foerste (making her feature film debut) is believable playing her as an appropriately depressed and angry child who isn't happy with the dramatic changes in her life. Other work by the likes of Ulrich Thomsen ("The World is Not Enough," "Killing Me Softly"), Sibylle Canonica ("Beyond Silence," "The Mask of Desire") and August Zirner ("Das Sams," "Punktchen und Avton") is all fine.

In the end, the film reminded me a bit of "You Can Count on Me" in that it takes a rather simple, mostly predictable and small story and manages to turn it into something quite good and, to keep with the cooking symbolism, meaty. That's a testament to both those in front of and behind the camera. Although it probably won't make it far out of the art house theatrical circuit, this is a delectable film that's worth ordering if you can find it on the cinematic menu. "Mostly Martha" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 15, 2002 / Posted August 23, 2002

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