Penélope Cruz is at the centre of this film of two halves
When we meet Magda (Penélope Cruz) she is not having the best of times. She’s recently lost her teaching job, her lecturer husband has run off with one of his students and, worst of all, she’s about to find out that she has advanced breast cancer. On the upside, her young son Dani (Teo Planell), the apple of her eye, is spotted by soccer scout Arturo (Luis Tosar), but in the next moment, Arturo finds out that his daughter has been killed in a car accident and his wife is in a coma.
Well, that’s quite a heavy dose of tragedy barely minutes into a movie, but what Spanish director Julio Medem (Sex and Lucía) has tried to do is make a film that is as much about life and gain as it is about death and loss. By providing comfort to Arturo, Magda puts her own suffering into perspective and finds a sense of purpose. When Arturo’s wife dies, the two come together in an initially sexless, but loving, relationship. Arturo automatically becomes a superior replacement for Dani’s errant father Raúl (Alex Brendemühl).
Meanwhile, Magda’s gynecologist Julián (Asier Etxeandia) is there to support her every step of the way – even by singing to her – and, by the end, has become part of this newly formed family. There is some ambiguity in Magda’s relationship with the handsome doctor who, somewhere along the line, separates with his spouse. Is he in love with Magda? How does Arturo feel about all of this? Magda also becomes obsessed with Natasha, the Siberian orphan that Julián and his wife have stopped attempting to adopt, as a symbol of new life and rebirth.
Medem has intentionally structured his movie in two halves. The first deals with Magda’s discovery, treatment and recovery from a curable cancer. The second, is what follows when the cancer comes back – this time untreatable – together with an unplanned pregnancy.
The strength of MA MA lies undoubtedly in Cruz’s performance. You can see why she’s an Oscar-winning actor. She is required to run the range of emotions, from shock, fear and pain to love, strength and hope, often to heart-breaking effect. Tosar is also credible as the grief-stricken widower who becomes Magda’s tower of strength, a man who is economical with words, but has the most expressive of eyes.
Where the film falls down is by trying too hard to be upbeat and life-affirming. Everyone around Magda is good, kind and selfless (even her ex shows his softer side) and she herself is unshakably positive. That positivity is the only explanation for a highly implausible ending. By increasingly layering this very human story with fantasy, Medem loses the audience in the final chapters, which is a shame, because he does touch on more realistic themes, such as Dani’s difficulty in relating to his mother after her mastectomy or Arturo’s impotency, earlier in the film.
MA MA is therefore very much a film of two halves. On the one hand, you have the very personal and touching tale of a woman learning to deal with a disease that sadly effects so many of us but, on the other, a depiction of her final months that won’t resemble many people’s experience of coping with cancer.
MA MA is in UK cinemas on 24th June.
Words / Huma Humayun
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