Mostly Martha: Pasta Carbonara

Year Released: 2002
Directed by: Sandra Nettelbeck
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Maxine Foerste, Sergio Castellitto, August Zirner. Ulrich Thomsen
(PG, 107 min.)

"Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with." Mark Twain

Martha is a master chef so consumed with her art that even on the psychiatrist’s couch, she talks of nothing but food and the intricacies of its preparation. The intricacies of her psyche she leaves strictly alone until her eight-year-old niece Lina washes ashore onto her pristine world. And a life as sterile as the gleaming stainless countertops in her kitchen suddenly becomes cluttered with assorted humans demanding attention.

“I wish I had a recipe for you that I could follow,” Martha (Marina Gedeck) tells her orphaned niece Lina (Maxine Foerste) after picking the runaway up at the police station. That would make it so much easier. But making a soufflé is not the same as dealing with the suppressed grief of someone as emotionally uptight as her own well-meaning aunt.

It’s not as though Martha doesn’t already have troubles enough. She is a perfectionist who will not brook any complaints from customers that do not appreciate her high culinary standards. When one customer pronounces the foie de gras undercooked, she replies, “If you want liverwurst, go somewhere else.” No wonder her boss has said she will fire her unless Martha goes to therapy. As mentioned earlier, however, the therapy isn’t doing too much good. As a matter of fact, at the next session with her shrink, she forgoes any semblance of therapy at all and serves him dinner instead, certainly an anomaly in his hospital white office space.

Mostly though, Martha prepares food rather than eating it as she dons her whiter than white apron with the flourish and flair of a bullfighter fanning his cape. In the chaotic frenzy of The Lido’s kitchen she is the epitome of efficiency and skill, presiding over a panoply of hissing pots and steaming caldrons or arranging delicate pastries into works of art on the porcelain plates. Only in the confines of the walk-in refrigerator when she is completely alone, can she let down the mask.

One time we do see her eat a lovely fish dinner at home, when suddenly she leaves the table to knock on the door of a new neighbor, the divorced architect who has just moved in. She asks him to dinner, or rather, says she will bring it to him, if he likes. He disdains this overture, but later on, when he suggests they get together, Martha, once more firmly in her shell, declines.

The next scene has her telling her psychiatrist (August Zirner) all about lobsters. “In the tank a lobster begins to eat itself from the inside out," she warns, "so do not buy them if they have been in there too long." It is not entirely lost on the audience that this scenario sounds suspiciously like Martha’s life in her self-imposed tank of work and nothing else.

The sudden death of Martha’s sister lands niece Lina in her temporary care, and life in the tank is put on hold. Ironically, though Martha works feverishly to prepare delicious food for her, Lina refuses to eat. Things are different at work as well, where the owner has hired a sous chef to work under Martha. Mario (Sergio Castellitto) is Italian, always late, and dances to Dean Martin tunes in the kitchen with a playfulness that put smiles on the staff and animus in Martha’s heart. “Two chefs in the kitchen is like two people driving the same car,” she complains.

Director Nettlebeck seems to have fun with these two ethnic stereotypes – Martha is ever so much the Teutonic trio of stubbornness, rigidity, and pride, while Mario is sunny Italy, warm, carefree, and cajoling. He prepares a pasta for the staff lunch, but Martha declines to eat. Not taking no for an answer, he sets the plate in front of her, saying that his mother whispered this recipe to him on her death bed.

She takes two begrudging mouthfuls and leaves the table. Only when he finally coaxes her niece Lina to eat, assembling a luscious pasta, noisily eating it, and then handing it off to her ever so casually, does Martha start to thaw.

In true chef fashion, he woos her through his cooking. First there is the dinner Lina insists upon, where Martha is shunned from her own immaculate kitchen and treated to a meal Lina and Mario have prepared, only they eat it camp out style on the living room floor. The ultimate seduction occurs with a sauce brought over in the middle of the night. He feeds a blindfolded Martha one spoonful at a time as she expertly deduces the ingredients. There is more underlying passion, and yes, sensuality in this scene than in all the compulsory aerobic sex scenes so commonplace today.

Don’t expect fast action or thrills in this understated work that, like a good sauce, insinuates itself imperceptibly and awakens the palate to a feast as sweet as it is subtle.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

I will forgo of all those elegant gourmet dishes that Martha talks about to her shrink, such as Roasted Pigeons with Truffles and Glazed Shallots served with a Madeira and Port Wine Sauce, because what really turns the movie in on itself is the pasta.

Lina, the grieving orphan in her aunt Martha’s care, rejects all of these culinary masterpieces in favor of al simple bowl of pasta. Seated upon the stainless steel countertop in the immaculate kitchen at The Lido restaurant in cold and gray Hamburg, she eats it like any kid would, with plenty of noise and relish as she sucks each wiggly noodle into her mouth. 

Suddenly we are with her in warm and sunny Italy, where we enjoy ours with a full glass of wine and plenty of crusty bread. Now all that is lacking is Dean Martin’s Volari in the background, inviting us to dance

Pasta Carbonara

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound bacon, cut into small pieces
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream at room temperature
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 16 ounces dry fettuccine pasta
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • ground black pepper to taste

Directions 

  1. Cook bacon until crisp. Drain on paper towels.
  2. In medium bowl beat together eggs and cream just until blended. 
  3. Stir in cheese and set aside.
  4. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and return to pan. 
  5. Toss with butter until it is melted. Add bacon and cheese mixture and toss gently until mixed.

Recipe Source: allrecipes. com