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“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” Virginia Woolf famously remarked. Directors of food films—from Babette’s Feast to Like Water for Chocolate—have taken this advice to heart, finding life lessons in the pleasures of the table. Mostly Martha, a Bridget Jones’ Diary for the culinary set, focuses on Martha (Martina Gedeck), the accomplished chef at a chic Hamburg restaurant. A workaholic and perfectionist, she creates master recipes for roasted pigeon and pig’s bladder, and knows the precise temperature for cooking foie gras in water, but she can’t take the measure of her own heart.
Then a tragic accident leaves her eight-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), at least temporarily in her care, and her restaurant’s kitchen in the hands of Mario (the talented Sergio Castellitto), a carefree Italian sous-chef. Neither is entirely welcome, at first. Unhappy Lina won’t eat, until Mario magically charms her with a bit of pasta and a load of Mediterranean warmth.
Handsomely shot, German filmmaker Sandra Nettelbeck’s third feature suffers from a certain romantic predictability. When fun-loving Mario appears on the scene humming Puccini arias, he’s got “love interest” written all over him, and the last scenes are filled with wedding clichés. But Martha is rich in contradictions, her tightly wound personality running counter to the sensual pleasure she offers others through her art, and Foerste’s Lina is an affecting and realistic portrait of a little girl in mourning, seeking solace where she may.
To reconstruct a child’s universe in the years before a historical disaster changed that world irrevocably is the impulse behind All My Loved Ones, the debut feature of Czech director Matej Minac. Inspired by his family’s experiences, it tells the story of the Silbersteins, a Jewish clan living in Prague on the eve of World War II. Jakub (Josef Abrhám), a doctor and the father of little David (Brano Holicek), inhabits a luxurious villa, where he’s host to his four eccentric brothers, including a religious cantor, a circus performer, a nutty inventor, and Sam, a famous violinist (Jirí Bartoska). As the Reich’s armies close in, and life for Jews becomes increasingly difficult, Sam renews his acquaintance with Nicholas Winton (Rupert Graves), a British stockbroker who heads an organization sending Jewish children to safety in London.
Through the kindertransports, as they were called, the real-life Winton eventually saved 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. (It’s a compelling story that’s been told in documentaries such as Melissa Hacker’s My Knees Were Jumping and Mark Harris’s Into the Arms of Strangers, which won an Academy Award.) Minac’s focus is not Winton (played by Graves in a wooden cameo) but the culture that preceded him. In many ways, the Silberstein brothers seem a textbook illustration of the varying degrees of Jewish assimilation in Czechoslovakia, but they also give a sense of the great range of Jewish life. The film’s staccato rhythm as it jumps between different characters and their stories is frustrating, and its techniques (e.g., slow motion to suggest emotional weight) are sometimes dated. But it offers a glimpse of the Solomonic decision facing Jewish parents in those turbulent times: to save their children and yet to lose them. And it traces a sustained and moving portrait of the worldly Sam, whose despair as the society he embraced abandons him is both clear-eyed and devastating.