Wild hearts can't be broken, but they can be melted - rarely more charmingly so than in Mostly Martha, where the seemingly impervious emotional facade of a perfectionist German master chef is slowly worn away - by the combined efforts of a heartbroken child and a heartwarming co-worker.
Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) knows plenty about cooking, little about being a human being. She's the type of person who thinks nothing of picking a fight with a customer who takes issue with her cooking, even if it means causing a scene in the middle of her chic restaurant. Her fish dishes may be without peer, but her interpersonal skills barely register.
Small wonder that Martha's life is spent mostly alone, whether she's cooking for one in her tiny apartment or seeking refuge in the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator, where she retreats whenever the pressures of her life seem to warrant human contact. In her view, it's far better to retreat into the cold for a few minutes than to seek solace in the companionship of others.
But then Martha's sister is killed in a car accident, and her 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), comes to live with her. Lina, too, wants nothing to do with anyone; the shock of her mother's death has left her sullen and withdrawn. She and Martha would seem the perfect pair, but of course, they're not: the last child Martha wants to raise is a mini-version of herself.
Discovering a few motherly instincts she never thought she had, Martha tries desperately to be the strong person Lina needs. But she fails miserably, until help comes from an unlikely source: an Italian sous-chef named Mario (a charismatic Sergio Castellitto), who embraces life every bit as much as Martha shrugs it off.
Mostly Martha is a film of self-discovery; little by little, as Lina serves to emphasize the responsibilities she's avoiding, Mario the fun she's missing, Martha opens up. Gedeck, in a slyly endearing turn, keeps Martha sympathetic not by playing to our emotions, nor by constantly suppressing her own, but by offering occasional glimpses of what could be.
Martha may be a cold fish, but it's not always for lack of effort; when she furtively approaches her new downstairs neighbor, Sam (Ulrich Thomsen), the heartbreak comes not from watching her fail, but from realizing how easy it would be for her to succeed. If only she knew better how to try.
Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck
Released by Paramount Classics
Rated PG (Thematic material, mild language)
Time 107 minutes (in German, with English subtitles)
SUN SCORE * * *