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Ma Ma, a Spanish melodrama written and directed by Julio Medem and starring Penélope Cruz, is a beautiful and often heartfelt drama that fall short due to a handful of bizzare creative decisions and an over-reliance on sentimentality.
Madga is an unemployed teacher and mother currently separated from her husband. When is she diagnosed with breast cancer, she ends up befriending a soccer scout, whose wife was recently gravely injured in a car accident. The two support one another in their time of need and their bond quickly grows beyond friendship.
It’s a little unsettling how soon Magda and Arturo (Luis Tosar) start a romantic relationship. The movie does not necessarily give the whole time frame, but it’s clear that it happens not long after Arturo’s wife passes away. In theory, their relationship works and the two have good chemistry. It might have been better to have the death of Arturo’s wife and child be a tragedy from the past, rather than such a recent, painful memory. It’s particularly weird considering the two never really acknowledge it.
Ma Ma’s biggest misstep is a subplot involving a little Russian girl from Siberia that Magda’s doctor is planning to adopt. Madga frequently sees the little girl in bizzare, surreal and very vivid daydreams and often asks about her. It ties into her desire to have another child and the grief that Arturo feels for losing a daughter, but it’s always awkwardly shoehorned in and very jarring. Little Natasha (the only name that exists if you’re a girl or woman from Russia) will suddenly just be in a scene, looking ominously, or Magda will ask about her out of nowhere in the middle of a completely unrelated conversation. It becomes outright annoying in the latter half of the movie and occurs way too frequently.
Ma Ma also has a tendency to undermine some of its more powerful moments through repetition. It’s revealed that her doctor is a good singer and she asks him to sing something to cheer her up. It’s a genuinely heartwarming moment as he croons and makes her smile and laugh while she’s in the middle of her chemotherapy. The problem is, the doctor singing to Magda is something that happens a total of four times in the movie, of which the first and last are the ones that actually work.
Similarly, scenes in which Magda getting dizzy or starting to faint is signified by a slow camera movement that matches her head tilting backwards as the color is slowly drained from the shot happens just a few too many times. It works brilliantly the first time, and much less so every subsequent one.
For all of its many problems, including an ending that may just be too sentimental for some, Ma Ma has enough genuine emotion to mostly work. There’s an early scene after Magda where she is all alone in her house. She sent her son away to visit relatives so that he does not have to witness her chemotherapy. The finals to the Euro 2012 tournament are on TV, and since Spain is playing, the streets are packed with people. Magda does not care about football, but she knows her son does, and so she cheers and claps for every goal, all alone in her house while on the streets, people celebrate in crowds. It’s a really sweet moment, one of many that stand out and make you care about these people, despite all the weird dream sequences and such.
Penélope Cruz is impressively committed in her performance and does a great job, as does the rest of the cast.
Overall, Ma Ma falls short of greatness, but shows a lot of promise. There’s a heart and soul to this story that’s being pulled back by a few too many odd choices and missteps. As to whether or not the good outweighs the bad, well, your mileage may vary. It’s a beautiful film with good performances, so it might be worth a look just for that.