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New Release Review - MA MA

An unemployed teacher develops breast cancer.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Julio Medem

Starring: Penelope Cruz, Luis Tosar, Asier Etxeandia, Teo Planell



Cruz (and equally her director) makes such little effort to convincingly portray this unfortunate victim of statistics that it's impossible to view the film as anything other than exploitation of the most tasteless kind.



Penelope Cruz is the world's most unconvincing cancer patient in Julio Medem's Ma Ma, a movie best described as a vanity project for its leading lady, who has found meaty roles difficult to come by in recent years. Though its director made his name with challenging arthouse dramas like Sex & Lucia and Lovers of the Arctic Circle, this sees him enter disease of the week TV movie territory.



Cruz plays Magda, a school teacher recently made unemployed, a victim of Spain's economic collapse (the movie is set in 2012) and of cruel fate. A visit to her gynecologist (Asier Etxeandia) results in bad news - she's got stage three cancer and will have to lose a breast. Later that day, while watching her son, Dani (Teo Planell), play soccer, Magda gets talking to Arturo (Luis Tosar), a scout for Real Madrid who has taken an interest in the talents of her boy. The conversation is interrupted when Arturo receives a phone call informing him his daughter is dead and his wife lies in a coma following a car crash. 

Magda accompanies Arturo to the hospital, and goes on to spend time at his side in the weeks following the accident. When Arturo's wife passes away, the two begin an initially platonic relationship, each helping the other with their mutual crises.

If you look at the poster designed to market Ma Ma you'll notice how healthy Cruz appears. The marketing offers no hint to her character's condition, and frankly the movie itself doesn't particularly care. The actress couldn't even commit to shaving her head for the role, and so when Magda has to lose her luscious locks due to chemotherapy, the prosthetic bald cap makes her look like some telekinetic alien from Star Trek.


When Magda first receives the bad news, she reacts in a fashion that suggests she's not too bothered, and we assume she's merely putting on a brave face, but Medem never allows his protagonist to appear vulnerable; even when she's alone she fails to let her guard down. Though she loses her hair and a breast, we never believe Magda is suffering, and the same goes for Arturo's grief; mere days after the death of his wife he's romping on the beach with Magda.

Magda is so paperthin she may as well be a ghost. Apart from a son and an absent husband, she doesn't seem to have any sort of a life. We never see her interacting with any female friends, save for her nurse. She's Spain's most unsociable soccer mom!


As though all too aware of how shallow his film is, Medem garnishes it with pointless visual gimmicks, like a closeup of Magda's heart beating inside her chest, and dream sequences involving the young Siberian girl her gynecologist intends to adopt, the latter a sub-plot that goes nowhere. Every TV in the background is tuned into news reports detailing Spain's disastrous economy, but this has no effect on the narrative, as Magda and Arturo live affluently without having to work.

It's easy to dismiss actors who take on roles like this as merely seeking awards attention, but we've seen the likes of Julianne Moore throw themselves into such parts. Here, Cruz (and equally her director) makes such little effort to convincingly portray this unfortunate victim of statistics that it's impossible to view the film as anything other than exploitation of the most tasteless kind.

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