Brazilian filmmaker Anna Muylaert has made a gem of a film. The Second Mother shines with social consciousness, charm, and genuine emotions.
Val (Regina Casé) is the live-in maid for an affluent family in Sao Paulo for over a decade. She cooks, cleans, and nannies the family’s teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) since toddlerhood. Val’s diligent existence at her employer’s home is disturbed when her estranged daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila), to whom she not spoken in three years, contacts her and moves in with her to Sao Paulo to take the college entrance exam.
Seasoned with years of experience on the TV screen, Casé’s performance alone as the motherly housekeeper Val is worth watching. Never have I found line drying laundry so mesmerizing to watch. And as we follow Val serving canapés to blasé party guests who do not pay her more than a passing glance, classism is in the foreground in addition to being part of the setting.
The young and irreverent newcomer Jessica crosses the class line that divide them because she, essentially, behaves as if she is not “the maid’s daughter.” She invites herself to stay at the guest suite (as opposed to Val’s cramped room by the side of the kitchen) and plunges into the mansion’s pool, causing more than a few ripples in the world of Val and her employers. Jessica makes apparent the previously taken-for-granted codes of behavior within the house, and, by extension, the class division and the service culture. To Muylaert’s credit, these moments never become too deliberate nor uncomfortable to watch, for Val’s protests and frustrations are actually a welcome comedic relief.
And thanks to Muylaert’s superb writing, the film’s regional specificity does not distract but rather culminates to something more broad and universal. The film is ultimately about work, about mothers who work, and their loneliness. In the opening scene, while Val is chaperoning a young Fabinho swimming, she telephones Jessica whom she’s left in a distant town under the care of a nanny. Coming out the pool, Fabinho asks for his own mother Barbara (Karine Teles) who, just like Val, is at work and not at home. The simple yet densely packed writing excels in showing the irony in Val becoming estranged from her own daughter as she mothers Barbara’s son. And, more importantly, there exists some sort of kinship across the chasm of class, between Val and Barbara, both working moms who can’t be with their child.
What is most admirable about the film is that Muylaert maintains deeply empathetic to the women’s hurt, but never picks sides even as they hurt one another, nor does she discourage women from working. The story moves to a satisfying conclusion that is, ultimately, a touching testimony to the resiliency of human relations. It reminds us that things are never as bad they appear, and an truth that is the indispensable part of growing up – which is, “one day, you’ll understand your mother.”
The Second Mother won the Panorama Audience Award in Berlin, and Regina Casé and Camila Márdila won the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting. The film will be released on August 28, 2015.