In German with English subtitles.
The film opens with Martha talking about a recipe for pigeon and truffles. She is on the couch at her therapist’s, whose stomach is rumbling audibly as he listens to her. With a puzzled expression on his face, which is more or less permanent in their scenes together, he asks her why she is coming to therapy each week, since all she talks about is food. She replies that her boss threatened to fire her if she didn’t have therapy. Patiently, the therapist (August Zirner) asks her why she thinks her boss wants her to have therapy. “I have no idea!” she says.
This is Martha (played beautifully by acclaimed German actress Martina Gedeck). Top chef at the Lido Restaurant in Hamburg, her perfectionism makes her both highly valued and extremely exacting with staff below her. She lives only for her work and excludes emotional entanglements except with a beloved sister who lives some distance away. Martha is hardly conscious of her own emotions, hence her reply to her therapist. Nevertheless she is passionate about food and reverent about the preparation of it. Director Sandra Nettelback has eloquently shown in this film that for chefs the expert preparation of food is the principal expression both of their love and a deep need to provide nurturing. If a hapless customer dare send a meal back with criticism, Martha is likely to react explosively, necessitating a great deal of barely heard propitiation towards the customer from the restaurateur Frida (Sibylle Canonica). In the kitchen, however, when she finds her own standards being challenged or violated Martha’s professionalism will not allow her to express her anger so she rushes to the cool-room till she feels more temperate. Having set this background Martha’s life is about to be shaken upside down.
A car accident kills Martha’s sister, leaving her eight-year-old daughter without a carer until her Italian father, who does not know of her existence, can be located. Shattered, Martha finds a solemn, withdrawn Lina (Maxine Foerste) at the hospital, where the nursing staff are concerned that she will not eat. Despite all her efforts Martha is unable to reach the child, who deals with her grief by coldly shutting everyone out and by angrily rejecting her aunt. In tears after one worrying episode, Martha says to her “I wish I had a recipe for you that I could follow.” Nothing in the methods she has used successfully to cope in her life before this has prepared her for this uncontrollable, grieving child.
Meanwhile, Frida hires Mario (Sergio Castellitto) as the new sous-chef. He is a joyful, extroverted presence in the kitchen, bringing music and laughter which all the staff enjoy. Under pressure, Martha suspiciously ignores his open admiration for her culinary skill and his attempts to be friendly. It is only when in desperation she brings the sullen Lina to the restaurant and the child finally responds to his warmth by eating his pasta, that she begins to appreciate his special seductive magic. With difficulty, she asks for his help in locating Lina’s father in Italy.
Reinforcing the bond which is growing between them Mario and Lina create a surprise feast for Martha, banning her from her own kitchen. They eat sitting on the floor, without plates, in a picnic which to her astonishment she enjoys hugely. Later, when she sees the mess they have left in her kitchen, he copes matter-of-factly with her panic attack by producing a paper bag for her to breathe into. Later still he continues his gentle seduction with a blindfold taste test, in which, spoonful by spoonful, he gets her to savour and name each ingredient. In this intensely sensuous scene he draws her gradually to relinquish her need for control and to trust. It opens her to an entirely new world of love and enjoyment.
In the meantime, as far as opening her to some self-awareness her baffled and apparently inept therapist is not having any success at all. He allows her to cook for him in a somewhat unusual therapeutic interaction, while she explains to him the difference between compulsion and precision. Each dish she prepares must have specific ingredients, be cooked for a precise time at an exact temperature and we see, despite her utter love for and absorption with food, how much discipline and control have been her approach to life. It is entirely apt that the Teutonic therapist has no clue of the ‘recipe’ for Martha, while in contrast the sunny Italian prepares his ingredients with deceptively effortless care, instinctively throws all the ingredients together, ‘cooks’ them for just the right time and brings a different woman out through the process.
It appears that Lina might have just the family she wants when her long-lost father arrives to take her back to Italy. Once more she and Martha face loss. With the unaccustomed insight that pain has brought Martha explains to Guiseppe that his daughter is a little like her, not easy to know, and that he must give her time.
The performances in this sweetly poignant comedy are subtle and of great depth. Of special merit are Martina Gedeck as the meticulous Martha, Sergio Castellitto as Mario of the melting eyes and infectious laugh and young Maxime Foerste who puts in an intense and believable performance as Lina. A superb performance is given by Ulrich Thomsen, Martha’s aimiable neighbour and sometime short-notice baby-sitter, Sam, with whom bad timing prevents a potential relationship. The delightful Katja Studt is wonderful as Lea, Mario’s heavily pregnant predecessor. The camerawork beautifully contrasts close shots of food preparation in the steamy kitchen with the cool and sterile environment of Martha’s apartment, and the equally elegant therapist’s office with its glass surfaces and smooth, untextured furniture. Simple, evocative piano by Keith Jarrett and others is superbly balanced by joyous Italian songs to add flavour.
To those of us who find the saccharine or tasteless effect of many American comedies unappetising, the delicacy and unique savour of this European feast is a treat indeed. And as we left, my husband and I happily anticipated a wonderful meal at our favourite restaurant to prolong the spell of appreciation and enjoyment this film had wrought.
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