The Basque director Julio Médem came to prominence during the 1990s with such erotically charged festival hits as The Red Squirrel (1993) and Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998).
His later, quieter and less rapturously met career is, in some respects, emblematic of a larger decline in the arthouse sector. After all, who is going to pay to see the inconsequential lesbian softcore of Medem’s Room in Rome (2010) if they have decent broadband speed at home?
Unlike these Earlier Dirtier Pictures, Ma Ma is a coy affair. Medem’s presence is discernible from occasional tics, notably a beating CG heart, a stray nipple here, an animated crab there, and a deranged subplot concerning the non-adoption of a Siberian girl.
In all other respects, this is the Penelope Cruz show, a vanity project of quite staggering proportions, in which her character, a saintly cancer patient, gets to emote. A lot.
The lips start a-quivering when Magda (Cruz) is diagnosed with breast cancer. Determined to suffer (and do big acting) in silence, the recently dumped, unemployed teacher packs off her adoring pre-teen son just as the boy has come to the attention of Real Madrid scout, Arturo (Luis Tosar).
But wait! In a melodramatic twist, Arturo receives the news that there’s been a car crash involving his wife and daughter. But wait! In another melodramatic twist, here comes a miraculous recovery, an impossible relapse and an even more miraculous pregnancy.
Me Before You recently came under fire for its sanitised depiction of quadriplegia. In this spirit, Ma Ma deserves nothing short of hellfire for its representation of breast cancer, a condition that (apparently) may cause delicate fainting, increased sexual attractiveness and dreamy, wonderful delusions that all come true.
Public health in the time of financial crisis has seldom looked more glamorous: Magda’s serenading gynaecologist (and possibly oncologist and super surgeon) Julian (Asier Etxeandia) is so attentive and dedicated that he accompanies his patient to the seaside so she can relax and enjoy her movie cancer.
Julian, in common with all other characters and aspects of production – Kiko de la Rica’s saturated cinematography, Alberto Iglesias’ gushing score – orbits, musically, around Ma Ma’s implausible heroine.
But wait! Why doesn’t Magda have a single female friend or relative? But wait! What is this telenovela doing in a cinema?