Around the turn of the millennium, Julio Medem seemed on track to become the most accomplished and internationally popular Spanish filmmaker since Pedro Almodóvar. His fourth and fifth films—1998’s Lovers Of The Arctic Circle and 2001’s Sex And Lucía—were visually splendid, passionate, and personal, with a perspective on romance that was as complex as it was life-affirming. But Medem’s movies since then haven’t gotten nearly as much acclaim or attention, and now with Ma Ma he appears to be struggling to get his mojo back. While every bit as snazzy as his best-known work, Ma Ma’s corny simplicity makes its many flourishes look excessive, and even desperate.
Penélope Cruz (who also co-produced) stars as Magda, an unemployed divorcée who in the opening scene is diagnosed with breast cancer. While going through a mastectomy and chemotherapy, Magda meets Arturo (Luis Tosar), a soccer scout whom she initially befriends so that she can tout the skills of her athletic young son, Dani, but then falls for after Arturo goes through a tragedy of his own. Just as this trio starts to form a happy new family, Magda gets the news that her cancer has spread. Medem has a few more twists in store before Ma Ma is done, but the bulk of the movie is just this: one plucky woman trying to make the most of her last months on Earth by sharing her wisdom and joie de vivre with her loved ones.
Cruz is outstanding in Ma Ma. Her Magda starts the film as a lonely woman, feeling the stress of single motherhood and the worry over her dwindling public-assistance checks. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Magda watches Spain’s national soccer team on TV alone in her Madrid apartment, cheering every goal while looking longingly at the groups of people celebrating in the flats and bars across the street. If nothing else, Medem nurses every drop of irony from his heroine’s situation, as she becomes happier and more surrounded with affection the closer she gets to death.
But Ma Ma never really deepens or ripens beyond that. Given how many powerfully realistic movies have been made about cancer over the decades, it’s almost inexcusable that Medem doesn’t even try to treat the disease as anything other than a plot device. Magda’s doctor—a dreamboat named Julián (Asier Etxeandia)—is so attentive that he sings pop songs to her during treatment and follows her on vacation for checkups, all while delivering generic medical pronouncements like, “It’s a very rare relapse!” For the purposes of this story, it really only matters that Magda is dying, not what’s killing her. Still, the disinterest in anything resembling the real world is indicative of a larger problem with Ma Ma, which barely bothers to give its characters more than the broadest outlines. Julián is “the caring doctor.” Arturo is “the sensitive boyfriend.” Magda is “the good mother.” Everything is overly clean and featureless.
Perhaps to compensate for adhering to archetypes, Medem interjects frequent bursts of expressionism. After her mastectomy, Magda imagines her nipple preserved in an ice-filled jar. Whenever she gets overwhelmed and passes out, the screen turns blue. She often hallucinates a young Siberian girl roaming through her life. During moments of passion, Medem inserts shots of Magda’s beating heart. The effect of all of this is probably meant to be fantastical, similar to Lovers Of The Arctic Circle two decades ago. More often than not, Ma Ma’s stylish streaks feel like affectations. Give credit to Medem for trying to make a routine weepie more memorable, but the level of originality and creativity he applied to how this movie looks would’ve been better spent on his script.