Penélope Cruz is at the centre of this drama. It’s about a woman taking charge of her life after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and ultimately finding love with a new family. Although it is a very straightforward (and in many ways manipulative) film Ma Ma rests almost entirely on her shoulders.
Cruz plays Magda, who we meet at the beginning of the film as she is undergoing an examination which will lead to a biopsy. She’s funny and charming and she and the doctor build up such a rapport that the audience might be tricked into believing there is more to their relationship than a simple doctor/ patient consultation. But no, Magda is an open and friendly person – she’s amused and stoical. She’s also a combination of strength and fragility which makes the film such an interesting watch.
Because deep down Ma Ma is incredibly linear and straightforward. The fact it is so movingly performed and watchable is remarkable, and that is for the most part down to the wonderfully winning performance of Penélope Cruz as the mother of the title. She is superb. Her character is not only a luminous centre for the audience, but also for all the other characters in the film – she is the heart and soul of all that happens. Her empathy and stoicism combined with a very genuine seeming contentment at the centre of a family makes her admirable. The buttoned down acceptance of her situation is completely tempered by the joy she greets those around her.
Magda receives a diagnosis of cancer just as her philandering academic partner leaves for to teach elsewhere for the summer. His interest is in his nubile students, not his home life with his wife and and son. The doctor Julián is played with tortured aplomb by Asier Etxeandia – we know he has his own troubles, but when dealing with patients, even patients who later become friends, he keeps his personal problems buried. It’s a wonderfully subtle performance, there is always the sense that he is being very slightly torn apart.
Terminal illness is no barrier to romance in the movies, as we saw recently with Me Before You. In Ma Ma death and illness is the centre of the creation of love, and even family. Magda meets Arturo, a talent scout for Real Madrid, while he’s watching her son play football. Arturo suffers a huge personal tragedy and this brings them, and her footballing son, closer together. This relationship is the one the story is hung around. Arturo is played by Luis Tosar in a great and quietly affecting performance.
Although the film has a fantastical element involving a magical child in the form of a Russian girl Doctor Julián wanted to adopt, the medical science behind Magda’s treatment seems to be based on truth. The cinematography by Kiko de la Rica beautifully ties the fantastical to reality, even though the reasons for the fantasy are never really given much explanation. Is it a search for a sense of hope, or just the effect of chemotherapy?
The film is predicated on looking for the positive. It looks at how one person’s illness impacts and connects people around them and is ultimately it’s the story of how a familial love doesn’t necessarily have to come from a traditional family unit. What would have given a more realistic edge to the story would have been seeing a greater degree of Magda’s relationships with women as well as men. Although the quieter exterior female voice does give an extra meaning to the elements involving the fantasy girl child, it is a little curious that a film about woman’s progression through a cancer treatment is seen through the impact it has on almost exclusively male characters. Other women are sadly absent.
Julio Medem’s script and direction works very well – this is gentle storytelling, not full of high drama. It may be simple, but as a film Ma Ma is also emotional and effective.
Ma Ma is released in cinemas on Friday 24th June.