Arts & Culture · Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘The Second Mother’ Is First-Rate

Who cares for your children when you’re getting paid to care for someone else’s? According to a story in The Nation  last year, researchers found that 24 percent of Los Angeles housekeepers and 82 percent of the city’s live-in nannies had left children behind. In order to afford the stepping-stones toward upward mobility — private schools, birthday parties, piano lessons — these women pay an unthinkable cost. They send money home for their kids, but they miss those kids growing up.

This may seem a uniquely American phenomenon (and as many as half or more of our daycare providers are undocumented immigrants). But, you will find similar situations anywhere with a dramatic discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. In Brazil, for example, specifically Sao Paulo, the setting for a wonderful new movie called The Second Mother.

The Second Mother tells the story of Val, the live-in housekeeper of an affluent and fairly lazy family and the mother of Jéssica, a daughter she hasn’t seen in ten years. Val cooks, cleans and cares for teenaged Fabinho, while his father Juan Carlos sleeps in and drinks beer, and his mother Bárbara postures as a style icon. Val is capable and usually cheerful, accepting her position and making the most of it. Until Jéssica arrives

At first, Val’s employer Bárbara is gracious about the visitor. “You’ve helped us raise our son, so you are almost family,” she assures Val. “Buy a good mattress for her; I insist on paying.” But the housekeeper’s daughter isn’t quite what Dona Bárbara was expecting. Jéssica wants to take an entrance exam for architectural studies at the university. In an interesting twist, Fabinho is taking the same exam. This raises some eyebrows among the family, but there are more surprises to come. Jéssica prefers the en suite guest room to her mother’s floor. She eats with the family, ends up in their pool, and attracts the attention of not only Fabinho and his slacker friends, but of Juan Carlos as well. Bárbara quickly moves from feigned graciousness to genuine aggravation; she drops the benevolent part of her benevolent dictatorship rapidly.

Meanwhile, Val is torn. She is acutely aware of what is appropriate and what is not. She scolds Jéssica and mutters apologies to the family. Yet she’s also proud of her daughter, pets her and showers her with endearments, just as she does her surrogate son Fabinho. Jéssica, on the other hand, is surprised by how submissive her mother’s role is. “I thought you were so beautiful,” she remembers. “You always brought so many gifts.” Her resentment — of her mother as well as the family — is palpable, and her acts of class-cultural defiance grow until it becomes clear that she and her mother need to leave.

This may all sound rather tragic (and there is one scene of uncomfortable Oedipal energy between Val and Fabinho), but the movie has many humorous moments. Bewildered by what Jéssica might be doing in the hitherto off limits guest room, Val and another maid spy on her through a window. “What is she doing?” Val whispers as she pretends to water the lawn. “She’s reading a book,” reports her co-conspirator, pretending to prune a shrub. “Now, she’s lying down. Now, she’s reading again.” Although Jéssica enjoys ruffling the family’s feathers, she’s a bright girl and a diligent student — and a marked contrast to the more privileged but less focused Fabinho. Val’s selflessness has paid off, even if the resulting success is bittersweet.

Writer and director Anna Muylaert has woven an interesting and layered story around the theme of a mother’s sacrifice. She began the project as a reflection of motherhood and social structure in her country. “It is not a work that is well valued by men,” she explains. “This is a very sexist country. I divorced and raised my two kids alone. But I am not complaining about it. I would have liked to have had help, but I think mother’s work is sacred work.” It is a major strength of the film that its other mother, Bárbara, is not wholly a villain. She sees — and is enormously envious — of the bond between Val and her son.

In addition to shining a light on motherhood, Muylaert is exposing the rigid domestic class system she sees in Brazil. Asked to describe the film, she said that it is about “Who is allowed into the sitting-room. Who shouldn’t put a foot outside the kitchen. Who’s authorized to open the refrigerator door. Who shouldn’t touch the ice-cream. Who’s allowed to sit at the dinner table. Who can’t go near the swimming pool. Who can hug the kids. Who is not to be called mother. The Second Mother is a film about how the set of social rules that has been in place in Brazilian culture since colonial times, still affect the architecture of our affections to this very day.”

Actress Regina Casé brings her own history to the leading role of Val. Like so many caregivers, the babysitter she hired for her daughter years ago left a young child at home. “Once we knew she had a son, I asked to her bring the son back to our house,” Casé says. “If you cannot change the world, at least you can change the situation that is close to you.”

Casé is marvelous as Val, balancing subservience with pride and an innate nobility. Equally good is young Camila Márdila as her daughter. Both women were honored with Special Jury Prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. The rest of the cast is first-rate as well. Karine Teles is self-defensively veneered as Bárbara; Michel Joelsas is lovably lost as Fabinho; and Lourenco Mutarelli is creepily absent as Juan Carlos. In her smaller role, I particularly enjoyed Helena Albergaria as the maid (and Val’s accomplice in espionage) Edna.

When the film was released in Brazil, it was titled Que Horas Ela Volta? or “When Will She Be Back?” This refers to an early scene when a young Fabinho asks Val about Bárbara, as well as what we must imagine the young Jessica said after her mother’s sporadic visits. The U.S. release title, The Second Mother, has multiple possible meanings as well. Val is a second mother to Fabinho, yet it’s clear that his birth mother comes second in his life. And, what happens to the next generation of mothers?

The movie examines what it means to be a mother — is it a matter of proximity or of love? And what are we to do when those two pieces are at odds? As a working mother myself, in nowhere near as extreme circumstances as either Val or Bárbara, I have wondered the same thing.

Brazil has chosen The Second Mother as its official entry for this year’s Foreign Language Academy Award. I look forward to cheering for it as a heartwarming tribute to mothers, domestic workers and women in general.


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  • roz warren September 29, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    What Andrea said.

  • Andrea September 29, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Thank you for this beautifully written review. I can’t wait to see this film.