'Mostly Martha' charms with tale of love among the unlovable

In "Mostly Martha," German writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck throws together a child who isn't cute and a woman who isn't lovable, and the result is one of the year's more heartwarming movies. (Hollywood, take note.)

Filmed with a cool, minimalist elegance, it's the story of how a tightly controlled chef, Martha (Martina Gedeck), finds a recipe for happiness, with the help of her motherless 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste, whose little face is haunted by tragedy) and a warmhearted Italian sous-chef, Mario (Sergio Castellitto).

Nettelbeck, in her first major film project (she's made a couple of smaller films, not seen in this country), constructs her story along familiar lines, but saves it from predictability by the remarkable restraint of her directing style. A less-confident director would have let Martha have a hidden sweetness that peeks through, or would have allowed us to be easily charmed by the child's smile.

But Nettelbeck and her cast are true to the characters: Martha, who lives in an apartment that has all the warmth of an operating amphitheater, is a tough cookie who never does quite crumble. When she does find joy — on her own terms — it's all the more affecting.

Like "Big Night," "Babette's Feast" and other classics of the love-and-cooking genre, "Mostly Martha" is graced throughout by beautifully photographed sequences of meal preparation, including some heaven-sent desserts that could cause fainting in the aisles. It's probably best to have a dinner reservation planned post-film, or hurry straight home to heat up leftovers for two. Because it's not what you make, says this wise and beguiling movie, it's the love with which you make it.

Moira Macdonald: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2725.

"Mostly Martha"

With Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste, Sergio Castellitto, Sibylle Canonica, Ulrich Thomsen. Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. 107 minutes. Rated PG for thematic material and mild language. In German with English subtitles. Egyptian.