Aside from a Siberia-set prologue in which a little blonde girl lurches towards the camera like an undead White Walker, Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma” formally begins on a shot of an oncologist massaging Penélope Cruz’s exposed nipples. There’s nothing the least bit erotic about the examination, but Medem — whose previous films include “Sex and Lucia” and 2010’s softcore lesbian steamer “Room in Rome” — has the kind of track record that raises an eyebrow when his camera lingers on the folds of bronzed skin beneath his muse’s breasts. Mercifully, Medem’s gaze is strictly clinical in this case, but the scene is nevertheless a strong reminder that the director uses flesh the way that other filmmakers use dialogue.
When Magda (Cruz) is diagnosed with breast cancer — “cáncer de mama,” in Spanish — there’s reason to hope that Medem has found a vehicle to invert the sensuousness of his filmmaking and make a tender movie about the affect that illness has on sexuality and self-identity. After a career in which he’s dedicated his camera to caressing female curves, Medem might be willing to apply his gaze towards women whose bodies are in crisis. No such luck. On the contrary, it seems as though he’s incapable of bringing himself to sully the skin that he loves so much. This goes without saying for too many of us, but cancer is some nasty business. In “Ma Ma,” however, it’s sterile and serene, as Medem disastrously isolates the emotional gauntlet of this terrible disease away from the physical ordeal that defines it.
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A recently divorced school teacher who brims with an optimism that often blurs into denial, Magda handles her diagnosis so well that it almost seems as though she misheard her doctor. Leaving the hospital, she heads straight for her son’s soccer game, where Dani (Teo Planell) is his team’s star player. Watching from the stands, Magda is joined by a handsome stranger named Arturo (Luis Tosar), who reveals that he’s a scout for one of Spain’s premiere teams. That’s when Medem yanks his movie into melodrama, as Arturo receives a phone call that his wife and son have just been involved in a terrible car accident. Magda rushes him to the emergency room, and visits him there every day until both of his loved ones are pronounced dead. Both in shock and both in crisis, Magda and Arturo naturally turn to each other for context, and a bond begins to form between them. Although his relationship with Magda is largely platonic, the more time that Arturo spends around Dani, the more the three of them begin to fold into a new family unit.
Aside from the convenience of Magda and Arturo’s tragic first encounter (what’s the opposite of a meet-cute?), there’s an appreciable sincerity to the film’s premise. And yet, something feels off from the start. For one thing, Arturo seems almost completely unaffected by the immense tragedy that should have sideswiped him. Grief is a complicated beast, and everyone handles it differently, but it’s bizarre that neither he nor Magda ever acknowledge the loss, even in passing — Arturo is not in denial, and his passing reluctance to have sex with the new woman in his life is our only indication of any residual pain.
Perhaps the idea is that Magda’s natural buoyancy has lifted Arturo out of the doldrums, but the emotional purity of their relationship epitomizes Medem’s misguided desire to make a clean film about the messiest things. Whenever a scene threatens to get too heavy, Medem punctures it with images from the next one, as if he’s impatient to get there. His script routinely nods towards Spain’s financial crisis (it’s stressed that Magda is treated at the public hospital, because she can’t afford treatment at the ritzy one where Arturo’s wife and son were kept), but these undercurrents are muted whenever they risk impacting these characters in a meaningful way.
Cruz is radiant in her role, finding inner strength even when the script pushes Magda towards blind hope, and finding pain even when Medem insists that cancer hits with all the force of a bad night’s sleep. Despite the fact that Medem places his heroine in a revolving series of milky white rooms — shooting her as if she’s already in heaven — Cruz’s performance keeps the character grounded on this mortal coil. But not even she can survive what happens when Julian (Asier Etxeandia), Magda’s kindly gynecologist, assumes a bigger role in the second half of the film. A gentle man who likes to sing to his patients as he preps them for surgery (no thanks), Julian is in the process of adopting a Russian orphan named Natasha. He has a (very Photoshopped) photo of the her framed on his desk, in which she’s standing against the backdrop of a blizzard and staring into the lens with an undead look on her face. As the movie goes on, Magda begins to hallucinate visions of Natasha, the girl spooking up some inadvertent laughter every time she wanders through the frame like she got lost on her way to a Spanish-language remake of “The Grudge.”
It’s hard to say what Medem is going for with this stuff, as the ghostly sight of a pale (and possibly dead) child doesn’t really complement a story about we funnel the best of ourselves and our hopes for the future into the people we love. On the contrary, all it does is distract from how strange it is that Magda’s darkest hours are largely defined by the various men who love her, and how immaculate her beauty remains at all times.
Cancer is never this polite, and Medem seems so afraid of the human body that he cuts away from the film’s only sex scene in favor of a cheap CG rendering of Magda’s heart as it begins to beat faster. When one character gives birth, Medem cuts away from the chaos of the delivery to go inside the woman’s placid womb, where an Ally McBeal-level CG baby is patiently waiting to be tugged into the world. “Ma Ma,” for all of its niceness, is the first of Medem’s films that isn’t nearly sensual enough.
“Ma Ma” opens in theaters on Friday.