Heartstrings, prepared to be tugged at vigorously. Ma Ma is a quintessential tear-jerking melodrama that leans into its genre conventions heavily while still keeping an airy beauty to its characters and vision. Penélope Cruz’s charming turn as a breast cancer-stricken mother navigating her battle with her disease over the course of one year is the anchor. What strikes hardest in Ma Ma is the immediacy of the pain and grief its characters must suffer while still working to maintain a daily normalcy.
Don’t mistake the the aesthetic tenderness or the quiet interactions between the characters for weak points. Instead, embrace them because Ma Ma will leave you considering what things are worth giving your life for. The title is a play on words. Both a reference to the kind of cancer Magda (Cruz) is battling as well as the maternal term of endearment, Ma Ma seeks to navigate different forms of love as it intersects with motherhood and the consequences of being a cancer patient. It’s a big undertaking but director Julio Medem paints his portrait tenderly and carefully. Opening on the diagnosis of Magda’s breast cancer, it becomes evident very quickly that she’s not only an optimist, she’s a realist and a fighter.
During the course of one year, we watch her grapple with chemotherapy, the breakdown of her marriage, navigating a new romance and raising her adolescent son so that he will be okay if she is gone. Cruz excels as Magda. It might be frustrating to some that we only know Magda as a woman defined and shaped by her cancer, but the narrow view of her still offers room for growth. She negotiates her illness to such a point that she is still able to smile, to be a caring mother and even make herself vulnerable (this is especially handy as she falls in love with Arturo, a Real Madrid soccer scout facing real loss of his own). Medem’s lens often lingers on Magda’s conflicted visage, exposing her a woman who is braving the frightening reality.
As a result, she ploughs forward, resilient. This is matched by Medem’s soft and cool camera work: often framed in melancholic blues and greys, with frank, tender dialogue, each of the characters are on a journey towards healing into a newer person. Ma Ma is ultimately about what we do for love. What compels us to keep moving forward when it seems the odds are stacked against us? Who can we lean on when our own foundations feel shaken? It’s a heartbreaking but rewarding process to watch Cruz’s latest. You will feels satisfied, touched and perhaps a little vulnerable but don’t worry, it’s worth it.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem