With a cracking performance from Regina Casé and a sharp script, Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother is a well polished gem of class friction in Brazil.
War Of The Worldsby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like Sebastián Silva’s The Maid or more recently Franco Lolli’s Gente De Bien, Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother is a microcosm of South American society – bringing together under one roof the wealthy chattering classes and the watchful domestics that live in their shadow. It’s a social divide that haunts Chile, Colombia and now Brazil, as the heroine of Que Horas Ela Volta? whiles away her life caring for other people’s children as if they were her own, while her own daughter Jéssica is sent away to live with relatives. And yet, the rules of the game of this shared existence are clearly marked – to the point where no-one seems to notice them much any more.
Val (Regina Casé) works as a maid with a well-to-do family in Saõ Paulo. There’s Dona Barbara (Karine Teles) – the business-attired executive that wears the trousers, Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) an artist and lazy womaniser, and their son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), the spoilt high-school student who still climbs into Val’s bed for a cuddle. But their domestic bliss is shattered when Val’s daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila) arrives one day to share her mother’s room while applying for a place at a prestigious university to study architecture. Estranged from her mother, it’s not an easy reunion, made worse by the fact she’s unable to find a place in this labyrinth of unspoken rules. Casting aside the mattress on Val’s floor in favour of the guest room, eating Fabinho’s special ice-cream instead of the plain vanilla and even daring to take a dip in the pool, Jessica refuses to see herself as inferior, pushing her hosts’ hospitality to the limit. And it’s catching.
Winner of the audience award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother is a brilliant comedy – negotiating the upstairs-downstairs conflict with picaresque wit, as Val and the other maid Edna see through the family’s affairs with devastating clarity. It’s due largely to Regina Casé’s pitch-perfect performance, but also to a sublime script which is both thought-provoking and pulls at the heart strings. There are many delicious moments to be relished; the awkward airport reunion, the rumbled ice-cream eating or the breakfast Barbara is forced to prepare for Jessica when Val oversleeps, but above all it’s a film of nuance – a sideways glance, a sigh, or a hollow invitation taken at face value.
For, while Val doesn’t expect any more than her own little room, to serve meals to the family and prepare breakfast, it’s a generational bias Jéssica can’t share, seeing only condescension and subservience. For Brazilian youth, all are equal – and neither Jéssica nor Fabinho have any problem with her swimming in his pool. But for the old guard, it’s a slight against traditional roles – where a maid should be invisible until summoned, and a lady should be a generous benefactor – the only hope of improving one’s lot. Both Val and Doña Barbara are caught in this microcosm of polite nods and powerful subtext, and it’s only through Jéssica’s eyes that Val is able to glimpse a world free from servitude, where the family are no longer superior and where she can use the swimming pool – which she does with great glee – and be treated as an equal. And Anna Muylaert’s film is a powerful but poignant tale of emancipation, as Val moves out to live with her daughter and grandson, to become a second mother to her grandson, as history repeats itself.
No longer reduced to a motherhood of simply earning the money to pay bills, while someone else gets the nice part, Val is able to become the keystone of her own family. And it’s through family that Muylaert is able to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, as the working class stick together to get an education and raise children. It’s perhaps simplistic, and The Second Mother is by no means original, but with delicious performances all round and a razor-sharp script, Que Horas Ela Volta? proves there’s life in the old girl yet.
The Second Mother is released on 4th September 2015 in the UK