Writer-director Julio Medem’s Ma ma blends a martyred-woman melodrama with a disease-of-the-week tearjerker, reminding audiences that these largely passé subgenres share a distinct fetish for beautified suffering, often following women as they dutifully weather exploitation or demise with a stultifying aura of saintliness. These films require a strong lead capable of suggesting the inner life that pulses beneath the heroine’s dignified visage, someone like Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, or Bette Midler. But Ma ma stars Penélope Cruz, a charismatic, occasionally terrific actor with a sentimental streak that exacerbates this film’s worst instincts.
Cruz plays Magda, who learns that she has stage three breast cancer, receiving this news right after losing her job as a schoolteacher and agreeing to separate from her philandering husband (Alex Brendemühl). Magda is dazed from these successive cataclysms, feeling divorced from her own body, but her luck appears to turn a little when she strikes up a friendship with handsome, sad-eyed Arturo (Luis Tosar), a soccer scout who loses his wife and child in a car accident on the same day that Magda discovers her illness.
Magda and Arturo initially forge a convincing bond, as both are working through unimaginable heartbreak, each impressing the other as a pure and comforting influence during dark times. But Medem never allows the characters to develop a compelling rapport. At a certain point, it’s clear that Magda and Arturo’s friendship is going to evolve into romance, which is signaled by a lovely moment when Arturo rubs Magda’s skin on the beach with ocean water. We’re primed to watch as this relationship builds on the rickety blocks of Magda’s ailing health, but the filmmaker elides the blossoming of this union, skipping ahead to the next tragedy, which yields two or three more soap-operatic twists before reaching a preordained conclusion.
Though Ma ma has enough hanky-courting plot mechanics for three remakes of Beaches, this ludicrous narrative still might have soared if Medem evinced any interest in exploring the destabilizing emotional chaos of wrestling with cancer, the death of a parent or lover, pregnancy, a tragic car accident, or any of the other earth-shattering milestones he stuffs into the film. But the filmmaker only proffers a smug fantasy of glamorously passive acceptance. Magda never expresses bitterness or befuddlement with the weird resemblance that her life bears to a star-driven vanity project. Every potential complication is glossed over and sanitized to the point of meaninglessness. Medem appears to view conflict as an inconvenience to be dodged, as something capable of sullying his reverence for tasteful futility.
Throughout her parade of disappointments and miseries, Magda gazes upon others with glassy-eyed love, which they return eagerly, even her gynecologist, Julián (Asier Etxeandia), who accompanies her on a final beach vacation, inspecting her in the water, which, in such an informal context, laughably suggests sexual fondling. Just as one assumes that this film’s naïveté couldn’t get any more pronounced or embarrassing, Medem cuts to Julián singing a karaoke tribute to Magda, who regards him, as always, with an uncomplicated benevolence that’s supposed to pass for grace. There’s something repugnantly conformist and anti-intellectual about Ma ma’s fealty to uplift in the face of theoretical desolation. Even as a corpse, Magda is denied the stature of pain, creepily telegraphing only a smile and a heavenly white pallor. Medem seems to be saying that death is easy, perhaps even fashionable. Death completes Magda, after all, because she’s defined by nothing else.