Spain (2015) Dir. Julio Medem
When the song Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life appears at the end of Month Python’s Life Of Brian it is drenched with bitter irony due to the singers all being nailed to crucifixes. The ethos behind this title is heavily applied to this lachrymose drama, perhaps a little too much considering its dour rubric.
Having recently lost her teaching job and then her husband to a younger woman, Magda (Penélope Cruz) is hit by the final twist in this trifecta of cruel fate by the discovery of a cancerous tumour in her right breast. Keen to start chemo prior to a mastectomy, Magda withholds the news from her football mad son Dani (Teo Planell) until the recovery process begins.
Whilst watching Dani playing in a match, Magda is approached by Arturo (Luis Tosar) a football scout when Arturo receives news that his wife and daughter have been in a car accident. With the daughter dead and the wife in a coma, Magda pays a visit to the hospital where Arturo sits in vigil after her daily chemo sessions bringing them closer together.
In the past, writer-director Julio Medem has given us sexually charged delights like Sex & Lucia and Room In Rome, making this sensitive but often cloying melodrama appears to be the antithesis of his usual fare by actively avoiding anything prurient. Brief topless nudity is necessary apropos to the breast cancer angle otherwise there is nothing of an explicit nature here.
Medem’s script at first echoes Pedro Almodóvar in its portrayal of Magda as a strong independent woman who takes something as serious as breast cancer in her pragmatic stride. Full of pithy quips and homespun philosophy, Magda is quick to arrange everything in her head, happy to know she is in the “lucky” 70% to expect a positive prognosis.
She sends Dani away on a skiing holiday with relatives over the summer so she can face this trial alone as not worry her son, which is perhaps a two-fold move since he won’t witness her decent from perky and chirpy mother to wan, gaunt and hairless chemo patient. Apparently, despite being a popular teacher, Magda has no friends to speak of or family to support her through this.
Lucky then that grieving Arturo is on hand, having lost his wife on the same day Magda goes in for her mastectomy. Also there is Magda’s gynaecologist Julián (Asier Etxeandia), a man with his own problems as he and his wife are supposed to adopt a five year-old Siberian girl but he has doubts about it. But at least he has Magda to distract him, as does Arturo who suddenly assumes the role of proxy father to Dani.
Unfortunately it is the contrivance of the relationships that form out of the blue around Magda which harm the credibility of this script which was doing so well with Magda’s defiant declaration of war against her cancerous foe. Arturo has lost his wife yet just a week later he is at Magda’s bedside post operation, before taking her and Dani away for a beach holiday, the two football loving males bonding quicker than superglue.
Throughout the film there are two leitmotifs that Medem plays with to make Magda’s pre and post journey an ethereal one – the first is the heavy use of white in both architecture and in exposure of the images to suggests a dream or fantasy sequence. The other is the regular appearance of Natasha (Anna Jimenez), the orphan Julián gave up on, providing an oblique symbolism of either life, death, hope, regret or something.
Even if Magda does comes across as too enthusiastic in her resilience against her trauma, the positive of this is that rather than dwell on the attendant side effects of chemo and the mastectomy, and indeed the ever prevalent threat of death, Medem is keen to offer a sense of hope to anyone effected and by showing the trials Magda endures can help address any fears females may have.
Pertinent scenarios are not avoided here – Magda does indeed become a grey shadow of her former self and loses her hair and we do see her post op body with a scar and flat chest where her right breast used to be. Addressing this further, Dani shies away from his mother and can’t look her in the eye ever since she returned home missing a mammary, a subject his young mind couldn’t reconcile enough to discuss with her.
Unfortunately the story adds on the pressure with a further blow to Magda’s health in the final third of the film, which I won’t spoil, but does climax with something almost too comedic for words despite the intention being far from that. It is unquestionably a bittersweet and touching denouement, and one can see what Medem was going for, but this was one spoonful of syrup the film didn’t really need.
It was Penélope Cruz wanting to work with Medem that saw this eight-year-old script brought out of the mothballs, with Cruz also acting as producer. Question if you must the idea that this is a vanity project for Cruz, one cannot deny she gives a career best performance as Magda, committing herself physically and emotionally to every stage of the journey.
Bravely forgoing the usual glamorous treatment by appearing gaunt, pale and bald Cruz’s effervescence is never dulled, nor is the human side of her character, even when things get a little incredulous. She is ably supported by Luis Tosar as Arturo, who for once isn’t playing a homicidal maniac, but only gets to show his emotional clout in the first half only.
A deliberately moving film, Ma Ma is a celebration of life and an advocate for hope in the face of a life threatening illness, and perhaps it is this approach that begets the saccharine side of it. That gripe aside, Cruz’s superlative performance is reason enough to give it a watch.