A half hour into “Ma Ma,” I thought to myself, “You know, that Penélope Cruz is underrated as an actress. It’s as if her preternatural beauty has prevented people from appreciating her talents as a thespian. Almost like she’s the distaff Spanish version of Brad Pitt.”
After the film was over, and I had a chance to peruse Cruz’s filmography at leisure, doubts emerged. In recent years, at least, she’s had a nose for picking parts in outright bombs. Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor.” “Zoolander 2.” “Sex and the City 2.” She was even one of the voices in the instantly forgotten CGI guinea pig adventure “G-Force.” In fact, unless you count some mediocre Woody Allen movies (“To Rome with Love,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and some late-period Pedro Almodovar (“Volver,” “Broken Embraces”), she really hasn’t been in very many memorable flicks over the last decade.
Still, “Ma Ma” is a serviceable enough melodrama that it at least raised the possibility. In it, Cruz plays Magda, a recently laid-off schoolteacher and single mom who gets diagnosed with breast cancer and, later that day, meets a soccer scout named Arturo (Luis Tosar). Minutes later, he receives a phone call informing him that his daughter has been killed, and his wife gravely injured, in a car accident. It’s immediately clear that these two tragedy-plagued souls will find solace in each other, but it’s still satisfying to watch it unfold.
The writer-director is Julio Medem, who had a moment as an art-house auteur in the 1990s with earnestly metaphysical romances including “Lovers of the Arctic Circle” and “Tierra.” This is only his third feature since 2001’s “Sex and Lucia,” but it has a veteran’s polish and poise. Cruz’s character is a textbook case of the terminally ill woman as glowing maternal saint (see Ali MacGraw in “Love Story,” but with an adorable young son). But she imbues Magda with a certain nobility even when the plot devices veer toward manipulative hokum.
Maybe we’re too sophisticated these days to fall under the spell of the narrative clichés trotted out in “Ma Ma.” Maybe Cruz’s performance only stands out in contrast to the rest of her recent work. And maybe—no, surely—she’s no Garbo or Crawford, suffering for all women as “Camille” or “Mildred Pierce.” But to anyone thirsty for the taste of classy, old-school sap, this will be a briefly refreshing tonic.
(111 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, June 17 at Living Room Theaters) GRADE: B