In the Spanish weepie “ma ma,” one woman’s biological bad news is the curtain-raiser on a head-scratching floor show of forced transcendence. Though it stars the versatile, always watchable Penélope Cruz, who shows an expected flair for charismatic saintliness, even she can’t rescue this impossibly beatific melodrama.
Writer-director Julio Medem last ignited international audiences with the arty, soft-core gloss of his 2002 feature “Sex and Lucia.” He once again tries to find a rapturous mix of sensuality, emotion and presentational metaphor with this modern-day story of a stricken, headstrong wife and mother committed to her own brand of sunny-side-up fortitude. The model here may be the florid, female-centered movies of Douglas Sirk, but the effect is as poetic and inspiring as a waiting-room pamphlet.
The misfortune starts immediately, with schoolteacher Magda (Cruz) losing both her job and her cheating philosophy-professor husband, and learning from her handsome, sensitive gynecologist (Asier Etxeandia) that she has Stage 3 breast cancer. With chemotherapy and a mastectomy a necessity, Magda maintains a certain pluck and humor about it all, choosing to spare her soccer-obsessed son (Teo Planell) the news — and a radiation-depleted parent — by sending him off to relatives. But she also forges a mutually nurturing relationship with a soccer scout for Real Madrid named Arturo (Luis Tosar), whose wife and child have just died in a car crash.
The trickiness with melodrama is finding the right balance between aesthetic beauty and meaningful suffering. The best examples almost make you woozy with expressiveness. But when Magda, faced with a second-act setback and a patently ridiculous plot twist, makes a certain spirit-affirming decision about how her soul will live on, “ma ma” becomes cloying and idealistic in a manner that only suffocates. True feeling is practically bleached out of the movie.
Cruz, who is also one of the film’s producers, is one of those rare performers in complete control of her inner glow, and it allows her womanly, virtuous Magda to joke about preserving her nipple, or endure a bout of fatigue, with the same exquisite grace. But she’s ultimately no match for a movie that flattens out her naturally deep, humanly appealing wattage with its own direct klieg light of washed-out uplift. As an extra reminder, Magda’s smitten doctor — who becomes so involved he goes on vacation with them — returns to sing to her that she’s the embodiment of living. By this point, the movie itself is incurable.
No one said every cancer story had to be depressing. But Medem’s approach only highlights what he ignores about his subject, rather than what he awkwardly parades. Aiming for warm tears, “ma ma” is more likely to make eyes roll rather than water.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
MPAA rating: R for some nudity and brief sexual references
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7. Pasadena