Ma ma (2 stars)

Ma ma

Penélope Cruz rises above Julio Medem’s shameless tear-jerker

What is it about Penélope Cruz that prompts directors to place her on a pedestal, then make her suffer for her saintliness? To be specific, it’s Spanish directors who like to make a martyr of her. The instinct may be reverential, but it just feels kitsch.

Almodóvar did it in All About My Mother, in which the actress played a nun who contracts HIV from her transvestite lover and dies in childbirth. Now Julio Medem (Sex and Lucia) creates a lovely, life-affirming character for Cruz, only to afflict her with terminal cancer and have her spend a whole film dying.

All About My Mother is terrific, actually, the melodrama conducted with such skill as to be genuinely moving. But Medem has a tendency for forced whimsy, and his agenda here involves such shameless tear-jerking that the unfolding tragedy is barely allowed to breathe.

Cruz’s Magda is taking hits on all fronts: she’s about to lose her job as a teacher; her husband is leaving her; and she’s diagnosed with breast cancer. She takes it all on the chin, and knuckles down to treatment. She also meets recent widower Arturo (Luis Tosar), selflessly comforting him through his own problems and, along with Magda’s 10-year-old son Dani (Teo Planell), they plan a new life. But then the cancer returns.

Medem is after something slightly radical: not a weepy based on grief, but one based on joy – the waves of love, grace and humour that flow from Magda towards those around her. And Cruz delivers what’s required with huge skill; the way that her face owns the camera is no mere accident of beauty.

But tonally the tightrope between serious and jaunty is awful. The endless smiles, tears, group hugs, quirky fantasies, inspirational speeches and, worst of all, musical tributes (Magda has a singing gynaecologist) steadily wear down our own will to live.

Selected release from Fri 24 Jun.

Ma Ma

  • 2 stars
  • 2015
  • Spain
  • 1h 51min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Julio Medem
  • Cast: Penélope Cruz, Luis Tosar, Asiar Etxeandia, Teo Planell
  • UK release: 24 June 2016

Magda (Cruz) is a warm, joyful teacher and mother who's afflicted with terminal cancer. Forced, kitschy weepie which suffers from its director's tendency to place Cruz on a pedestal and then make her suffer; she delivers with great skill, but the endless smiles, tears, hugs and quirky fantasies wear down our own will to…