Spanish cinema, whether it be from the great Luis Bunuel or the absorbing Pedro Almodovar, is so often depicted with a gloriously heightened take on reality, melodramatic in an endearing way, managing to find a find a compatible balance between surrealism and naturalism, grounded by the severity of the themes being explored. Julio Medem’s Ma Ma is no different.
Penelope Cruz plays Magda, a now single mother tasked with raising her son Dani (Teo Plannell) on her own, having just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Forming a bond with her doctor Julian (Asier Etxeandia), he instructs her to have a mastectomy. Dealing with this difficult time internally, not willing to upset or frighten her son, who is intent on becoming a professional footballer, she finds solace in Arturo (Luis Tosar), a scout for Real Madrid who is suffering from the tragic loss of his daughter and wife in a car accident. The pair strike up a close affinity, and look towards the future, no matter how challenging it promises to be.
Cruz turns in a magnetic display as the protagonist, emblematic of the film’s unique tone, as she can be accused of overrating in parts, but in a way that is affectionately in line with Medem’s vision and fitting of the approach to storytelling he has taken – and yet she remains wholly empathetic as the suffering single mother. It’s just a shame that Tosar, another gifted performer, is not granted quite the same platform to display his impressive acting chops. There remains a darkly comic edge to this picture too, which derives from the harsh realities of the situation the characters find themselves in, creating moments where the viewer is never quite sure whether they can laugh or not – comforted only by the fact the majority of the audience is chuckling quietly too.
However for any positives on show, comes a film that is oddly structured, and to the film’s detriment, consistently skipping ahead in time for no apparent reason. So while there’s no denying Medem has put this tale together in a resourceful manner, which should always be commended, it’s not to say that it’s actually worked, and for a film that tackles such profound issues, there’s very little within this feature to feel truly moved about, as our emotional investment is minimal to say the least.