In the Spanish language ‘Mama’ has two different meanings – it’s the word for ‘breast’ but is also a common colloquial term for mother.
The mother in question in Ma Ma is Magda (Penelope Cruz), who has just lost a teaching job she loves and whose marriage to her philandering husband is also reaching its end at the start of the film. Things then take a turn for the even bleaker when a hospital check-up reveals she has Stage 3 breast cancer.
Magda dotes on her football protégé son, Dani, and her life changes when she meets Arturo (the excellent Luis Tosar), a Real Madrid football scout who has come to watch Dani at a match, just before Arturo has to deal with a life-changing personal tragedy of his own. The pair immediately form an unspoken bond as they negotiate their way through life.
Especially in its first half, Ma Ma is an unrelentingly hard watch, particularly for anyone who has personal experience of a loved one being treated for cancer. Misery is piled upon misery and, for a long time, it’s the very opposite of a feelgood movie – just when you think the bad news can’t get any worse, it inevitably does.
Ma Ma is undoubtedly aiming to be a tearjerker in the mould of Love Story. At times, though, it’s like watching a TV movie of the week. The football scenes featuring young Dani (Teo Planell) with Cruz cheering on from the sidelines, for example, are pure queso.
But, at some point in the film I can’t quite put my finger on, something happens – Ma Ma starts to win you over. This is in no small part down to Cruz who is a fine actor and, despite the movie’s faults, Magda is an alluring and likeable character. You can’t help but fall for her or, ultimately, the film’s central theme that the power of kindness, love and positive thought can lift you above even the most extreme adversities life can throw at you.
Ma Ma also explores the idea that, for some people, if they know they have little time left it can at times actually give them a sense of elation – the thrill of embracing every last precious moment of life. While this most certainly isn’t the case for everyone, it does happen. I’m reminded of a recent radio interview I heard with singer and guitarist Wilko Johnson who, in 2013, was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer and given ten months to live.
Johnson’s tumour was successfully removed after a nine-hour operation and he became one of the three per cent of people who survive pancreatic cancer. While grateful, to his surprise Johnson found himself strangely deflated at his unexpected reprieve and missing the sense of freedom and living life to the full he’d experienced while he thought he was terminally ill.
Magda’s journey in Ma Ma is a reminder to enjoy life, do the things you love and be with the people who make you happy – because the day eventually comes to everyone when you’re no longer able to whether you want to or not. It’s a clichéd message, but also one that perhaps we all need reminding of from time to time.
Despite its weaknesses, you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be wiping the odd tear from your eye at least once while watching Ma Ma. Sometimes you just have to go with it and leave your cynicism at the door.