Cancer, unemployment rates, the economic crisis, faith, morality, the fate of souls, pregnancy and concern for Russian orphans are the components of Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma,” a tragedy pile-on that is laughably ludicrous when it isn’t tedious. The writer/director gets an unreserved performance from Penélope Cruz (who produced the picture too), great work from cinematographer Kiko de la Rica, a could’ve-been-better score from Alberto Iglesias, in a movie that clearly involved a lot of very talented contributors. So it’s too bad that no one at any point questioned Medem’s movie, which falls flat on its face thanks to a severe lack of self-awareness and an air of dramatic self-importance.
The film kicks off with a helluva day for Magda (Cruz). A routine visit to Raúl (Àlex Brendemühl), the handsomest singing gynaecologist ever, reveals that she has stage three breast cancer. We also learn at the same time that Magda is a teacher recently out of a job and her marriage to her philosophy professor husband Julián (Asier Etxeandia) is pretty much over. Meanwhile, Raúl is planning to adopt a young girl from Siberia (huh!?) with his wife. Anyway, chemotherapy is quickly arranged in advance of a mastectomy that will remove her right breast. Later that afternoon, Magda attends her son Dani’s (Teo Planell) soccer game, where she meets Arturo (Luis Tosar), who just after telling her he’s a scout for Real Madrid and is interested in signing up her son, receives a phone call informing him that his daughter was killed in a car crash and his wife has wound up in a coma. He promptly faints at the news, and Magda accompanies him to the hospital, where the duo quickly bond over their respective tragedies.
A relationship takes root between the pair, with Magda checking in with Arturo who is keeping vigil over his wife after each of her chemotherapy sessions. Arturo’s wife passes away and Magda’s breast is removed, but the duo find sunshine with each other and a new makeshift family is formed. But it’s not long until bad news rolls around again: Magda’s cancer has returned, and this time it’s terminal. As for Raúl, he starts becoming much too involved as his own world starts falling apart. And there’s even more developments to come.
Somewhere in this hot mess of soap opera plotting, Medem is trying to make some kind of point, but I’ll be damned if I know what is. Spain’s economic woes hang in the background but are of little consequence, considering the otherwise affluent lives of the characters. Magda has a recurring vision of Raúl’s Siberian orphan child, but I’m not sure to what end. Simplistic conversations about theological concerns attempt to imbue meaning into the increasingly overwrought plot developments. And eventually, Medem’s inability to measure out his drama with any kind of balance dooms the film into terminal silliness. The critics at my screening couldn’t keep from giggling during a climatic sequence that finds three characters earnestly singing a song to a baby, urging the young one to “feel, love, dream” because “that is living!” “Ma Ma” is the simply the cinematic equivalent of a motivational poster crossed with a fortune cookie.
Perhaps we’re supposed to be awed by Magda, who is fearless in the face of adversity, but there’s not enough space to process her victories in light of the curveballs thrown at her life. Medem’s picture can barely go five minutes without making another left turn, and while Magda’s indefatigable spirit is supposed to carry us through, Cruz’s performance cannot overcome the relentless string of increasingly unbelievable, unengaging and ridiculous plot developments. To be sure, melodrama is by its very nature a heightened reality, but Medem spins his movie completely out of the orbit of anything grounded or relatable. You won’t so much marvel at Magda’s resiliency as you will at Cruz’s ability to retain her dignity throughout this embarrassing, tiresome picture.
“Ma Ma” is a selfish film, and thus a failure. Medem’s picture is showy but empty exercise that professes intellectual weight by simply ticking Big Idea boxes, as well as emotional heft for putting its lead character through existential and physical turmoil. But one cannot evince sympathy for Magda; she simply exists as a device, while the narrative leans on manipulation rather than meaning in its attempts to communicate with the audience. The real tragedy of “Ma Ma” is in how misguided its approach is —I would be offended, but it would require more investment in the film than it deserves. [F]