Penelope Cruz is absolutely wonderful in Ma Ma, the biggest feature at the Spanish Film Festival in Canberra. Cruz plays Magda, a single mother who decides to leave her cheating husband, a professor of Philosophy who is sleeping with his students (!). This decision coincides with her learning that she has breast cancer.
On the same day of her marital independence, she meets and forms a friendship with Arturo (Luis Tosar), an ailing husband who, also on this fateful day, learns his wife and child have been in an accident.
This film begins by exploring grief and human connection through loss, but soon proves itself a film about life and how to be happy in brief, imperfect moments. The film is a beautiful celebration of motherhood; the film ends with a dedication: “to all the women.”
There is more to like about this movie: it’s depiction of friendship especially as well as its wrestling with faith and atheism. It is a lovely statement on the diversity of families and ultimately has an affirming message about gay fatherhood. While there are many cliches along the way about living life to the fullest, there is great joy in seeing a woman-centred story where the journey is driven by her own desires.
Score: Distinction (7.5/10).
Representation of intersectionality
Gender: The central story makes some (limited) feminist statements, with a strong, self-assured woman protagonist. That being said, she is played by a extraordinarily beautiful able-bodied, cisgender woman from a majority ethnic group.
Disability: Magda’s illness is a life affirming statement for the audience. She is lovable because she is beautiful through her pain. Many scenes play out while she receives chemotherapy, but as with many of the “cancer trope” stories, her suffering is only permissible because she remains buoyant, even as she accepts the probability of her death.
A scene where Magda lives out a fantasy of a threesome with two men reinforces her independence and is a positive statement on her heterosexuality. She enjoys the sex and feels validated. It is a triumph to see a woman enjoy unconventional sex on her own terms.
There is a mixed message in having Magda embrace her body after a mastectomy. Women are rarely portrayed in mainstream movies naked in this manner; however, Cruz is able-bodied and supernaturally gorgeous. The threesome is a pivotal moment in her body positivity. Would the audience be so invited to identify with the body of a woman who is actually a cancer survivor or who is disabled? Given that women sometimes feel pressured to have reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, even by medical professionals, the choice to cast an able-bodied woman in such a role undermines the affirming message.
Race, culture and class: There are no ethnic or racial minorities in the film, despite Spain’s multiculturalism and complex national history. Everyone is wealthy and so illness and disability are disconnected from the class and racial divides that actually impact on health and healing. Magda has excellent medical attention and so her pain plays out in large, sterile and beautiful rooms. We know she is dying, but she has a choice about how this plays out.
Sexuality: A bisexual doctor, Julián (Asier Etxeandia), is conventionally attractive but he is also a professional and compassionate. He is a great character on many levels, being confident and open about his sexuality with those he trusts, as well as having high emotional intelligence. At the same time, he is portrayed as promiscuous, which is a tired stereotype of bisexual people. He is unhappily married to a woman and ultimately settles down with a man.
Arturo struggles with his homosexuality, having first devoted himself to a heterosexual marriage and then entering into a sexless romantic relationship with Magda. He is an honest and kind man, but ultimately the story plays out in a way in which others dictate his sexuality to him. He is even given permission to become a gay man as a final act of kindness by Magda.
It is notable that in a film with a bisexual man and a gay man, the only sex they have is spoken about in the context of past group sex. So, as with many mainstream movies, male homosexuality and bisexuality is only accommodated in a sexless manner. They are, in this way, not fully realised characters. Their sexualities are permissible insofar as they do not confront or discomfort the audience.
All three characters were trapped in unhappy heterosexual marriages; in finding one another, they achieve happiness. This message is a good one and if read through a subversive lens, heterosexual marriage is ultimately being challenged. This message that would have had even stronger impact if the two male characters did not embody other stereotypes.
As anyone who is invested intersectionality understands, mainstream movies have good and bad points. This film is worth watching for the strong performances. It is aiming to be more complex than most other films in its portrayal of sexuality and illness, but it falls short upon critical reflection.
In spite of its flaws, this is a good film experience for people wishing to see more diverse families on the big screen. The ultimate message is that families are made through many configurations. Embracing the love of two men at its core makes this film a progressive love story, despite its shortcomings.