This deeply unfashionable weepie about the final-year dramas of a terminally ill woman would seem a remove from the usual signature of its maverick Basque director, Julio Medem. More commonly associated with sensual fantasias – Lovers of the Arctic Circle and Sex and Lucia – Medem somehow succeeds in organically morphing the wrought scenario of Ma Ma into his more immersive, dreamy sensibility without losing the tale’s inherently poignant undertow.

What is even more radical is that Medem has eschewed the revisionist, meta-referential route that other celebrated auteurs (think Pedro Almodóvar and Todd Haynes) have gone down when dealing with the melodrama genre. Medem plays his story more or less straight, helped especially by staggering lead performances of force and grace from Penélope Cruz and Luis Tosar. In particular, it’s a delight to see the full, mature range of Penélope Cruz; removed from the shackles of the stereotypical Latina temptress roles that Hollywood usually places her in – Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and From Rome With Love being two obvious examples.

By the close of Ma Ma’s relentless emotional onslaught, it will take a hardened viewer not to shed a tear. Medem hasn’t simply got us there through conventional manipulation though, but with exemplary cinematic technique. He scorches his vistas in an all-enveloping white – not only literally depicting the clinical environs of the hospital, but also suggesting the internal, desolate hinterland Cruz’s protagonist is entering.

Bring your hanky and don’t expect postmodern irony: this is a gut-wrenching journey through the sensational highs and lows of a woman’s last year of life. Featuring one of Penélope Cruz’s greatest ever performances, Ma Ma is exemplary of what a classy director can do with potentially soapy material.



CAST: Penélope Cruz, Luis Tosar, Asier Etxeandia, Àlex Brendemühl, Silvia Abascal

DIRECTOR: Julio Medem

WRITER: Julio Medem

SYNOPSIS: A woman, Magda (Cruz), contracts breast cancer while also having to deal with the impending break-up of her marriage, the arrival of another potential suitor, and the pains of bringing up a young son.