J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

ma ma: Penelope Cruz Wants You to Cry

Magda and Arturo have the opposite of a meet-cute. She is in the hospital for breast cancer treatment, while he has come to say goodbye to his soon to be late wife (having already lost their daughter). Those are some intense experiences to bond over, so you can’t really blame them for marrying so quickly. Unfortunately, they will experience some rotten déjà vu halfway through Julio Medem’s ma ma (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If you feel a lump during the given self-examination of your gender, do not put off having it examined like Magda does. By the time Julián, her handsome gynecologist with a seductive singing voice biopsies it, the cancer has advanced to a stage requiring a mastectomy. Obviously, Magda is concerned, but she ratchets up her resolve, arranging family to care for her oblivious son Dani and somewhat passive aggressively banishing her ex-husband Raúl from her life. In a case of better late than never, he deeply regrets not being there for her. When he sets about to make amends, it might just be the first miracle attributable to Saint Magda.

Unfortunately, Arturo’s wife and daughter are still dead (from a car crash he was not a party to), but Magda appears to make a complete recovery. Arturo the professional football scout also gets on smashingly with Dani, the talented junior player. However, Magda somehow manages to delay her follow-up exams to the point beyond all reasonable hope. Yet, despite her dreary diagnosis, Magda will keep her recent pregnancy. Their daughter will be her legacy. Besides, as their close family friend, Julián the singing gynecologist will help Arturo and Dani raise her.

Right, so basically ma ma is the most depressing reboot of Three Men and a Baby ever (even the reformed Raúl promises to chip in, making it a veritable barbershop quartet). Yet, for all its naked manipulations, it is impossible to dismiss the film, because it represents such a distinctive vision. It is sort of like a Paolo Sorrentino film on Benzedrine and chorizo. To describe it as an operatic ode to motherhood would be an understatement. It is secular hagiography at its boldest. Plus, there is bizarre symbolism of the Siberian waif (who Julián supposedly was unable to adopt) strolling through the film like a silent Greek chorus.

So, no, subtly is not Medem’s thing. To give her credit, Penelope Cruz antes up at every call. She plays Magda with such ferocious dignity it downright hurts to watch. Basically, the usually forceful Luis Tosar is emasculated by her shadow. This is obviously Medem’s Madonna story, so Arturo, the poor man’s Joseph is just an afterthought.

Realism is probably not much of a priority either. Nobody is claiming to be a doctor here, but we imagine most women with stage three cancer who are also eight months pregnant would not be so keen to frolic on the beach—but hey, more power to Magda. Medem will absolutely beat us over the head with her courage and determination, but at least he does it with style, so it is hard to resent him for it. This is not just a drippy tearjerker, but rather an auteurist re-invention of melodrama. Recommended for those who find Pedro Almodovar too upbeat and Terrence Malick too understated, ma ma opens this Friday (5/20) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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