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Ma Ma | Review

Soap on a Rope: Medem Returns with Malignant Cancer Drama

Ma Ma Poster Julio MedemIt’s becoming harder and harder to remember the relevancy of Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem, a leading auteur of the 90’s who commanded attention with a handful of features, culminating with 2001’s landmark Sex and Lucia. In the fifteen years since then, he’s only unveiled three additional features, each one of arguably diminished significance. His latest, Ma Ma, commands high profile interest since it headlines Penelope Cruz, the Oscar winner throwing herself admirably into a teary telenovela quality melodrama about a woman discovering she has breast cancer and using the opportunity to live out loud. But Cruz’s mammaries aren’t the only receptacles housing carcinogenic matter in this woefully sorrowful Jenga tower of miseries desperately trying to launch a blubbery blitzkrieg of poignancy on its audience. Excessive schmaltz breeds insincerity, and not even its lead star can overcome the toxic handwringing of a narrative begging to be dialed down several dramatic decibels.

Magda (Cruz) found a lump on her breast two months ago, but since it hadn’t grown, she didn’t find it necessary to schedule an examination. Julien, her gynecologist (Asier Etxeandia), is immediately alarmed when she comes to see him, and by the end of her visit, it’s determined she has stage three breast cancer and a mastectomy is required. Recently divorced, her husband Raul (Alex Brendemuhl) having left her for a younger blonde, Magda lives exclusively for her son Dani (Teo Planell). Shortly after her diagnosis, she meets soccer scout Arturo (Luis Tosar) at one of her son’s games, and after a brief exchange, he receives a devastating phone call informing him his daughter was killed in a car accident while his wife is in a coma. Magda accompanies him to the hospital and the two tragedy struck characters serve as emotional support and eventual romantic interests for one another. Arturo’s wife dies and Magda’s health improves. But when another lump is discovered, it seems the cancer has spread to other portions of her body. Rather than throw in the towel, a surprise pregnancy motivates Magda to carry her baby to term and enrich her last few months with Dani and Arturo.

Ma Ma suffers from the same good intentions as most sensationalized cancer dramas, attempting to shape realistic anxieties around extreme sentiment. In many ways, Medem’s film generates as many grimaces as something like Catherine Hardwicke’s Miss You Already (2015), another film which wastes admirable performances and blunt discussions of the body dysmorphia accompanying the drastic loss of a woman’s breasts.

Cruz’s Magda is haunted by the loss of her nipple, but the potential psychological complexity of such specific detail is lost in the narrative’s predilection for perpetual anguish and false sentiment. The go-for-broke poignancy is over baked by the cornball crookery of endlessly wet-eyed gazes for the martyrdom of Magda, a character who never earns the staunch allegiance of Arturo or Julian. The depiction of the gynecologist is incredibly problematic considering his convenient ability to sidestep a legion of other patients for Magda’s comfort. A subplot involving the Russian daughter he had planned on adopting with his off-screen wife ends up being a repeated theme in Magda’s totem of motifs, while his show-stopping singing abilities leads to a cringing tearstained climax. Medem also miscalculates the characterization of Magda’s son, Dani, streamlining his dilemmas for the neat resolution of the inevitable finale.

Many seem predisposed to honoring Cruz’s acting here (albeit in a mode we’ve seen her in before), but despite her ability to evoke the audience’s sensitivity, it’s a performance as ultimately hollow as the cancer ravaged narrative she centers.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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