The term “cancer drama” often has a strongly negative notion to it when discussing one’s preferences towards a particular type of film. Year after year, festivals all around the globe almost always carry at least a movie or two that tackles the subject of cancer on their slate. With Ma ma, Julio Médem’s Penelope Cruz-vehicle does nothing to really stir the pot as far as films of this genre come.
Ma ma surprisingly lacks on the complete opposite side of the spectrum that most films dealing with a deadly illness suffer from. Let’s take last year’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, for example. That’s a film that the pushes every square inch of the melodrama as far as it can get just in an attempt to garner an emotional reaction from the audience. Médem does quite the opposite. He opens up the film with Cruz’s Magda midway through a breast examination and makes it clear from the start that good news is not to on its way. Shortly after, Magda is diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer, but her doctor sends her off with the news of a 70% chance to beat it.
The primary focus of the film surprisingly wasn’t Magda’s struggle to deal with her diagnosis, in fact, I almost forgot that it was part of the story. After her initial examination, Magda seems unphased by the doctor’s certainly worried concern for her and just heads straight on over to her son’s soccer game. As her son Dani champions the field as the team’s star player, Magda meets a man by the name of Arturo. Immediately hitting it off as they sit together and chat together at the bleachers, Arturo receives a phone call alerting him that his wife and daughter have just been in a deadly car accidental. Rushing to the hospital, the two bond as Magda offers him two of the tranquilizers that nurse at the examination gave her to deal with her pain.
One of the biggest issues that Ma ma suffers from is the neverending amount of coincidental “cop outs” that Médem’s screenplay succumbs to all throughout the film. Whether it be even the most minor of things like the medic just dropping off Dani to the hospital without even calling as she asked after his game or even major moments in the film that Médem heavily relies on in order to help progress his narrative further.
Once Arturo and Magda begin to spend more and more time with each other, Médem gradually starts to put less of a focus on her cancer as their relationship blossoms into something much greater than she was imagining. Only returning to her cancer in order to set up the key arc in the film, Magda’s cancer begins to spread out all the way to her lungs. Now given six months to live, she’s determined to stay alive long enough to give birth to a baby girl and to be able to hold her child in her very own arms.
I see the term “pacing issues” thrown around left and right nowadays when describing one’s own complaint about a film, but I’m rather dismissive of that criticism 95% of the time. With Ma ma, I feel this critique certainly applies, especially when the third act comes rolling around. Suddenly Magda is pregnant and bolstering the baby girl of her own that she and Arturo were hoping to have. In a blink of an eye, Magda’s stomach has grown to the size of a full-sized basketball, as she makes a video for her future daughter to watch over and over again when’s she longing for her mother.
Only now, does Médem try to push the real emotion that Cruz has been laying out on the table from the get-go, but this sequence lacks any real juice to stir up a reaction out of the audience. By this time in the film, it’s far too late for Médem to hit his desired emotional cords. What I admired most about Ma ma up until then was Médem’s apparent disinterest in manipulating the audiences’ emotions, but this scene (and all that follow) completely destroy any notion that I once had of Médem trying to bring something different to his tale of struggle.