A sensitive career-changing performance by luminous Penélope Cruz dominates the Spanish film Ma Ma, but there’s no escaping the fact that the rest of it is not much more than a dreary, tear-stained soap opera. Aiming for a change of pace from her larky roles in films by Pedro Almodóvar and Woody Allen (who guided her to an Oscar in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the tempestuous star tones it down a few notches to play a woman who sustains more melodramatic blows than the background saga related by Anne Baxter in All About Eve that inspired Thelma Ritter to quip, “Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.”
MA MA ★★
Written and directed by: Julio Medem
Diagnosed with breast cancer as soon as she is deserted by her husband, a heel who runs away to spend the summer with his new girlfriend, unemployed school teacher Magda (Ms. Cruz, fighting back sobs) is left alone in Madrid to raise their son, endure a mastectomy and undergo painful, debilitating chemotherapy. Struggling to balance maudlin material with a lighthearted illusion of normalcy and hope, writer-director Julio Medem intercuts clinical discussions of Magda’s surgery, radiation and post-operative medications with her son’s soccer game. While she’s talking to Arturo (the excellent character actor Luis Tosar), a scout for Madrid’s junior soccer league, the man gets an emergency call on his cell phone informing him his daughter has died in an automobile accident and wife is in a coma. Magda, enhanced by Ms. Cruz’s radiance and magnetism, is a woman of compassion and sympathy for others even though she’s going through her own personal challenges. After Magda drives the stranger to the hospital and helps him through the tragedy of losing his family, Arturo becomes a trusted new friend, companion and surrogate father to her son Dani. In the months of hope for a 70 percent recovery that follow, Magda finally experiences every joy she’s been denied for years. Then, the relapse, the deadly prognosis (the cancer is terminal) and the discovery that she’s pregnant. With only seven months to live, Magda finds allies in both Arturo and her loyal gynecologist Julian (played by the elegant Spanish stage actor Asier Etxeandia) and bravely dedicates what’s left of her life to beating the odds. As the movie drags on, she fights to overcome the inevitable, dispensing advice to the son and lover she’s leaving behind and to the baby daughter who is born on Magda’s death bed, bringing inspiration to others while she goes through the perils of Job.
The tears flow like wine, Spanish-style, as Julian writes a love song to honor Magda’s memory, Dani becomes a sensation on the soccer field, Magda forgives her villainous ex-husband for all the strife he caused and the captive audience for Ma Ma suffers along through every minute of it. The script is contrived and tedious, but Ms. Cruz (who also produced the film) is so persuasive that she makes even the most sentimental moments credible. The piercing expressions in her eyes change from scene to scene, even the shape of her face shifts from angle to angle, as she tests a gamut of emotions, fearlessly tackling every demand with strength and optimism—showing her breasts beforeand after the mastectomy, shaving her head, and splashing in the surf during a trip to the beach when she’s seven months pregnant, clad only in a bikini. She’s a heroic figure in Ma Ma, overcoming every obstacle, including the film itself.