by Matt Levine
Of all the things that can be bought and sold, the ability to provide parental affection might be one of the most troublesome—the translation of familial love into capitalist exchange. But it’s a predicament dealt with all the time by nannies and live-in maids who are tasked with loving children in some cases throughout their youth, developing a bond that cannot be matched by hardworking parents. This rift between biological and hired parents (and their children) is especially rocky in The Second Mother, a Brazilian comedy-drama starring Regina Casé, a well-known comedian and TV personality in her home country. Anna Muylaert's film is so gentle and unassuming that it initially threatens to become dull, but very quickly that placid tone is unsettled by a web of familial angst and broken class taboos, making The Second Mother both a perceptive social commentary and a moving character study.
Landmark Lagoon Cinema
Director: Anna Muylaert
Producers: Fabiano Gullane, Caio Gullane, Débora Ivanov, Gabriel Lacerda, Anna Muylaert
Writer: Anna Muylaert
Cinematographer: Barbara Alvarez
Editor: Karen Harley
Music: Vitor Araújo, Fábio Trummer
Cast: Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenço Mutarelli, Helena Albergaria
Premiere: January 25, 2015 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 28, 2015
US Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
A brief prologue introduces us to Val (Casé), a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy São Paulo family. In the first scene, she lovingly tends to the family’s son Fabinho, who is barely out of toddlerhood; the boy seems to love Val as much as she adores him, though he’s confused when she calls her own daughter on the telephone, wondering why Val and her child can’t be together. After the opening titles, we flash forward about a decade, though little between Val and Fabinho (now a handsome, punkish teenager played by Michel Joeslas) appears to have changed: he lies across her lap, smiling blissfully, while she plays with his curly hair, basking in her quasi-motherly love.
Val enjoys her job. Her employers—Juan Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), a has-been artist made wealthy by his inheritance who now spends most of his days lazing about and sulking; and Bárbara (Karine Teles), a famous fashion designer whose affections lie on a gradient ranging from sincerity to calculation—are decent enough, and they’ve developed a closeness after thirteen years of living together (albeit a bond based more on economic hierarchy than mutual respect). Val is paid well enough to provide for her daughter Jéssica, who has been living in Val’s impoverished hometown in northeast Brazil, raised by a close friend who is asked to provide the same parental duties that Val, desperate for an income, was forced to abandon.
This semi-stable family structure is endangered when Val receives a phone call from a now-17-year-old Jéssica. She is set to take her college entrance exams (like Fabinho) and, hoping to study architecture at the prestigious FAU in São Paulo, now intends to move in with her estranged mother. Jéssica doesn’t realize until she arrives days later that living with her mother entails sleeping on a thin mattress in a small room in Val’s employers’ house.
Beautiful, cryptic, and seemingly scornful of outdated social etiquette, Jéssica quickly wriggles her way into the familial hierarchy. She brazenly asks to stay in the opulent guest bedroom (which Val reminds her is for “real guests”), eats Fabinho’s special ice cream, and doesn’t see the impropriety of expecting the haughty Bárbara to serve her breakfast at the family table. The lascivious Juan Carlos and wide-eyed Fabinho are invigorated by the presence of a young female, taking her on art tours in the city and smoking weed with her by the swimming pool, respectively. At times the movie suggests a well-behaved version of Teorema (1968), with an exuberant force of youth and beauty shaking up a wealthy family’s preconceptions of social and economic balance.
The Second Mother of course recognizes the difficult position of relying on another person to care for your child (or, on the other hand, the emotional tumult of loving another family’s child as your own). Even the original Portuguese title suggests as much: Que Horas Ela Volta? (translated as What Time Will She Return?) is even more pressing in its suggestion of absence, presence, anticipation and loneliness. While The Second Mother is never didactic in its critique of a social structure in which paid employees fill the role of the mother, the rifts created by such an exchange are still acutely felt—when Val chides her daughter for eating at her employers’ table, for example, but dotes on Fabinho as soon as he sits in the same seat moments later. The emotional power of the film accumulates mostly through small, quiet moments like this one, and while this approach can be tricky, sometimes bordering on the mundane rather than the thought-provoking, writer-director Anna Muylaert should be commended for her sensitive restraint.
More successful than the movie’s emotional fallout, perhaps, is its perceptive handling of social and political themes. The class barriers and taboos that still exist in Brazilian cities are wryly exposed; Val has never set foot in her employers’ swimming pool or slept in the guest bedroom, though Jéssica, shrugging off such etiquette, does both within her first several days at the house. When she is thrown into the pool by Fabinho and his stoner friend, Val’s fellow housekeepers are the only ones to really share in her outrage. Jéssica’s stubbornness could be seen as progressive—when asked by her mother if she thinks she’s better than everybody, Jéssica soundly responds, “No, I just don’t think I’m worse”—but it’s still seen as a sign of arrogance by Val’s employers, for whom arrogance is an inborn trait. Muylaert also conveys the sexual imbalance of Brazilian society in subtle ways, asking why the ennui-stricken Juan Carlos (or Jéssica’s unseen father) don’t need to hire their own father-surrogates to provide for their families. Muylaert trusts enough in her audience to be able to recognize these injustices and come to their own conclusions. (Dana Stevens’ Slate review is the best analysis of these themes I've been able to find.)
With her fourth feature (in addition to a lot of Brazilian television work), Muylaert opts for a restrained, unobtrusive style, often filming in static long shots to allow the relationships to develop throughout a scene. (One instance, in which Juan Carlos shares lunch with Jéssica while Val eavesdrops on his lecherous conversation, is especially impressive.) The aesthetic can’t be called bold, but it’s colorful and insightful, subservient to the characters and their dialogues. A few more stylistic risks might have been welcome, but it’s hard to criticize an aesthetic that is so respectful to the story and its participants—a humanism that likely stems from the fact that Muylaert first developed the story 20 years ago based on her own nanny, who left her daughter behind to care for Muylaert’s son.
Given that The Second Mother is narrative-driven and character-based, perhaps it’s no surprise that the film amounts to a triumph for Regina Casé more than for writer-director Muylaert. I know little about Casé aside from the fact that she co-founded an avant-garde theatre troupe in Rio de Janeiro, has appeared in more than 20 films, and has been labeled the Brazilian Oprah; but her immersion in the character of Val, the exuberance and sadness and disappointment she embodies, certainly culminate in one of the best performances of the year (though “the Academy” will never recognize it as such). The fact that Casé helped rewrite Muylaert’s script, based on her upbringing in northeast Brazil and her friendships with several housekeepers from the region, only clarifies Casé’s significant role in the production. No disrespect to Muylaert, who has made an intelligent, moving film, but what I’ll remember from The Second Mother are the unrestrained outbursts that Casé provides, the inhabitation of an outsized personality that’s also subtle and lived-in. When the movie unfortunately falters at the end, offering a resolution that’s pat and simplistic while the rest of the film is assuredly shaded, Casé again redeems it with the joyful sincerity of her smile, viewed in close-up. The screenplay contortions of this ending are unfortunate, but there’s nothing artificial about the love (motherly or otherwise) that Casé so movingly exudes.