As Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett – the character played by Taryn Manning in Orange is the New Black – can attest, there’s a difference between pain and suffering. “Pain is always there, but suffering is a choice.” These wise words (taken from that series’ recent trailer) are definitely relevant to the plot of Julio Medem’s latest film Ma ma. Featuring Penelope Cruz in one of her most vulnerable roles to date, this star vehicle sees the acclaimed actress put on a brave face despite the hardships endured by her character in this understated, depressing cancer drama.
Cruz plays Magda, a woman going through one of the most difficult periods of her life. She has just lost her job as a schoolteacher and her husband is distant, likely being unfaithful with a younger woman. With a young son in need of love and support, she is determined to maintain a happy home. But Magda’s life is about to get even worse, as she receives a Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis, the same disease that killed her mother. Although all the cards are stacked against her, she remains optimistic. And soon some unexpected comfort comes in the form of an equally downtrodden man named Arturo (Luis Tosar). Having just lost his wife and daughter in a horrifying accident, they strike up a connection based on their shared misery and a possible opportunity (he’s a soccer scout, her son’s an avid soccer player). Slowly, they begin to recover from their pain, even as life tries to tear them down.
And indeed, the film’s director Medem keeps things serious throughout, striking a grim tone which is never quite alleviated. Even as our unfortunate souls are gradually rejuvenated by their blossoming relationship and new family dynamic, a morbid feeling still lingers over the air. Throughout much of the early stages of the film, Magda is left to cope with the rigors of chemotherapy and a mastectomy on her own, before Arturo steps in.
But despite being one of Spain’s most accomplished actors, Tosar is given the simplistic “supportive wife” role, now gender-swapped to suit this situation. Despite having his own harrowing story of trauma, we never get a fuller sense of his internal struggle. Instead, the director includes some dreamlike flourishes to reflect Magda’s state of mind, each varying in their effectiveness. Notably, the film opens with the shot of a little girl alone in a wintry environment. This recurring visage is meant to signify hope (she is an orphan waiting to be adopted), but instead she comes across as an expressionless ghost who haunts the film.
Despite the depressing premise, Penelope Cruz turns in another strong performance which adds color and light to the film. Her wide, bright eyes express the tenacity of a woman determined to appreciate as much of the world’s beauty and pleasures as she can. Though physically fragile, she is the model of martyrly strength, symbolizing the selfless nature that mothers are known for. If nothing else, the film is worth watching for her delicate work. And though Ma ma’s melodramatic DNA is hampered by Medem’s austere aesthetic, there’s still enough inherent emotional power to satisfy the casual arthouse crowd looking for alternative foreign fare this summer.
Ma ma opens in select theaters May 20, 2016.