German-language cinema isn't known for its whimsy, and its typical take on childhood (evidenced in such angst-fueled dramas as "The Tin Drum" and "Chinese Roulette") is pretty brutal. This may explain why "Mostly Martha" never becomes the gooey schmaltz-fest hinted at by its plot -- uptight, career-driven chef mellows when an adorably taciturn orphan enters the picture -- and by its concern with such life-affirming intoxicants as smooth jazz, sumptuous food and earthy, witty Italian bachelors. Instead, this restrained movie is a mildly buoyant but mostly serious character study that doesn't surrender to feel-good cutesiness.
Martina Gedeck is Martha Klein, a celebrated chef working at a cosmopolitan bistro in Hamburg. Martha is such a tight-ass that she limits her means of self-expression to cooking for others and chewing out philistines who don't adequately express appreciation for her efforts. Needless to say, she's in therapy, though she seems mostly satisfied with her work-focused, solitary lifestyle. That all changes when her sister is killed in a car accident, leaving traumatized 8-year-old niece Lina (Maxime Foerste) in her charge. The only nurturing Martha is capable of is exacting food preparation, and she finds her niece stubbornly dour. (Empathy is not among Martha's strong suits). To make matters worse, little Lina dislikes her aunt's heavy, traditional dishes. The ice queen and the orphan are at an impasse -- that is, until loving Italian sous-chef Mario (Sergio Castellitto) helps thaw their relations.
"Mostly Martha" succeeds in part because its title character's tough veneer never cracks. As played by Gedeck, Martha is consistently and convincingly chilly and remote; even after she and Lina have bonded, she is still a tough read. (Who knows what the fun-loving Mario sees in her?) The characterization is seamless enough to almost distract us from how conventional "Mostly Martha" is otherwise. Even the movie's obsession with food-preparation rituals seems cribbed from other films like "Big Night." But at least Martha's tips on selecting and preparing lobster -- detailed in her drab voice-over narration -- are informative.