The Second Mother

Anna Muylaert
Release Year:
Anna Muylaert
Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Helena Albergaria
Berlin International Film Festival 2015, Won C.I.C.A.E. Award, Sundance Festival 2015, won Special Jury Prize
Screening Date:
  • 11 Apr 2017
  • Categories:
    Comedy, Drama

    When the estranged daughter of a hard-working live-in housekeeper appears, the unspoken class barriers in the home are thrown into disarray. Won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2015.

    Film Notes

    The tranquil and orderly existence of a live-in housekeeper who’s humbly served a middle-class Brazilian family for over a decade is completely turned upside-down when her estranged daughter arrives in Sao Paulo to apply for university there in The Second Mother (Que horas ela volta?). This densely layered yet almost fast paced-feeling drama, from writer-director Anna Muylaert (Collect Call), passes not only the Bechdel test with flying colors but dissects with both chilling precision and humor such matters as class differences, real mothers vs. caretakers and whether privilege and one's own station are things that can be questioned or changed. After a Sundance/Berlin double dip, this should see interest from festivals and smart distributors from all four corners of the globe. Val (Regina Case), rarely seen without something to clean or be cleaned in her hands, has been with the family of Dr. Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), who inherited his wealth, and his hard-working, self-made wife, Barbara (Karine Teles), for so long that their handsome son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) considers Val more like another mother than as a housekeeper with added nanny duties. When the film opens, it’s the year he’ll be doing his university entrance exams, but that doesn’t mean that Fabinho has stopped crawling into Val’s bed for a cuddle every now and then. The warm and affectionate rapport between Val and the family’s only child stands in stark contrast to that of Fabinho’s with his biological parents, with the three of them preferring to interact with their phones instead of each other during their shared dinners. Indeed, all three seem friendlier to their housekeeper, who over the years has become the silent and almost invisible motor that keeps the entire household running (the other members of the household staff, which include another domestic help, a chauffeur and a gardener, don’t get half the esteem from their employers, though interestingly this has the effect of making Val even more self-effacing). Taking care of a family practically non-stop while also living under their roof means Val has had to make certain sacrifices, which include having left her own daughter, Jessica (Camila Mardila), with Jessica’s father, who lives on the other side of the country and with whom Val’s not on speaking terms. As a consequence, she hasn’t seen her own daughter in over 10 years, so she’s surprised to receive a call from her and even more surprised to learn she’s planning to stay with her when she’ll be in town for her own university entrance exams. But the reunion of mother and daughter is far from a happy one, as Jessica becomes something of a fixation for the men in the house (shades of Teorema) and Val is appalled with the liberties a housekeeper’s daughter thinks nothing of taking in the home of the people that pay her mother her salary and that have very kindly allowed her to let her daughter stay there for a couple of days. A former critic who has also co-written films made by others, including The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (the breakout film of young Joelsas) and the recent Praia Do Futuro, Muylaert does a deft job here of plotting her story and setting up her characters and their predicaments in ways that immediately invite reflection. The most natural-feeling mother-child bond, for example, is that between a spoiled young man and a working-class woman who’s not only paid to look after him but who has left her own child behind in order to fully dedicate herself to her job. The English title is well-chosen -- the original Portuguese means something like When Is She Coming Back? -- and can be applied to many relationships, including Barbara’s with Val, Barbara’s with her own son, for whom more often than not she seems to not be the primary mother, and also to Jessica’s connection with a character whose existence is only revealed quite late into the film. The beauty of the ingeniously constructed screenplay is that it feels like a story-driven narrative while it explores a lot of complex ideas just underneath the surface, and the way Muylaert handles the feelings of Carlos and Fabinho for Jessica shows a deft hand at avoiding cliches in inventive ways that nonetheless feel entirely organic. Beyond familial and familial-seeming bonds, the film investigates subjects such as propriety, deference, employer/employee relationships and the complex issue of privilege and the division between the classes, with the arrival of Jessica completely upsetting a status quo that had been the norm at the house for years. On Jessica’s first morning there, circumstances force Barbara to have to make breakfast for their guest, who a day earlier had already managed to maneuver her way from a mattress on the floor of her mother’s basement bedroom to the mansion’s immense guest room with its en-suite bathroom. Jessica’s decision to apply to the county’s most competitive university for architecture in Sao Paulo not only sparks an almost inappropriate interest in her from Dr. Carlos but also helps underline the importance of education in upward mobility, a concept that seems entirely alien to Val, who tells her daughter that people will offer her things because they know she’s expected to decline them. But to her mother’s frustration (and more than occasional amusement for the audience), the strong-willed young woman never says no to anything that’s offered to her and even goes as far as to suggest what she’d like. One of Brazil’s best and most beloved actresses, Case here makes a welcome return to features after years in TV. Though the film is very much an ensemble piece, and all the actors are terrific, she’s definitely the standout here. Her Val demonstrates so much love and works so constantly and so hard that’s it’s impossible not to like her, even though in practice, she’s abandoned her own daughter and, when reunited, has to come to the realization that she’s a stranger with a completely different set of ideas and values. The good-looking film’s main question thus becomes whether Val wants to finally be Jessica’s mother and assert her maternal authority to set her right or whether she accepts their differences and lets her adult daughter go her own way. Like elsewhere in the film, the ending (spoiler!) finally finds a workable entente between two extremes, with the finale utterly heart-warming without feeling like Muylaert betrayed who these characters really are and what they stand for.
    Boyd van Hoeij, Hollywood Reporter, 26th January 2015.
    The perennially fascinating and tactless subject of 21st-century servitude is the theme of this well acted and absorbing film – to be compared with Sebastián Silva’s 2009 gem The Maid, and, from much further back, Joseph Losey’s 1960 classic The Servant. What happens when the live-in help get above themselves? And how does the supposedly liberal and relaxed employer class find a way of expressing its fastidious distaste and unease? It is the story of a rich Brazilian family in São Paulo and their housekeeper Val, wonderfully played by Regina Casé. She has been a nanny to the son of the house, as well as all her other duties, earning enough to send money home to pay for the care of her own daughter Jéssica, whom she has not seen for 10 years. Everyone knows their place and everyone is happy. Now Jéssica shows up: a smart, confident 19-year-old (played by Camila Márdila) hoping to apply for a university place in the city, and Val asks if she can stay with her in her little room while she looks for a place. Soon Jéssica makes herself at home all over the house in all sorts of subtly inappropriate ways, addressing her mother’s employers in a subtly insolent manner – and it is clear that the master of the house and the son find her attractive. The unspoken, unspeakable agony of class and caste is cleverly rendered in this funny, serious movie.
    Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 3rd September 2015.
    A fair to large number of the contemporary Brazilian films that make their way to United States distribution deal with social inequities on a large and harrowing scale. The frantic, violent 2002 “City of God” is a pertinent example, as are the hyper drug-busting “Elite Squad” pictures. Writer/director Anna Muyleart examines class and income difference in a much, much quieter register in “The Second Mother,” a domestic comedy-drama that starts off from a fairly pat premise but builds strength over the course of its careful, empathetic, and crafty unpeeling of its characters. Regina Calé plays Val, a spirited if frumpy middle-aged woman who’s worked for a well-off Sao Paolo family for over a decade. In that time she’s become practically a second mom to now-teen Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). She’s practically a co-conspirator with the kid. After his parents, haute-bohemians Barbara (the imperious bossy parent, played by Karine Teles) and Carlos (the laid-back failed artiste inheritor of a family fortune, played by Lourenço Mutarelli) upbraid Fabinho for having a stash of pot (they’re avid smokers themselves of course), Val assists him in retrieving it from the trash. It’s all cozy enough in its way, especially as Barbara and Carlos, the better to assuage their liberal guilt, make something of a show of treating Val as “family.” This practice is put to the test when a figure from Val’s past calls. Val, as it happens, left the Northern part of Brazil for Sao Paolo with something behind her: a child of her own, Jéssica, whom she entrusted to relatives when she went to work for something like a living. Jéssica (the great Camila Márdila) is now a teen, and about to apply for university in Sao Paolo. She’s seeing her mother for the first time in a long time, and the resourceful, smart, appealing girl is put off right away by her mother’s insistence that she move into her employer’s house with her. Given that Jéssica is attractive, resourceful, smart, and aspires to a form of independence, one can expect all manner of sparks to fly. And they do. The tensions between servant and master are evident before Jéssica arrives, revealed in Barbara’s barely-held in, snobbish reaction to a coffee set Val presumes to give the family as a gift. Once Jéssica arrives, she at first knocks out her mom—“The Internet...You can do that?” Val exclaims on seeing her daughter’s web savvy in action—then confuses her with her dedicated studying: “The whole day with a book, it’s easy to go crazy.” Jéssica’s insistence on taking the family at their word about her and her mom’s equality in their eyes is a test of Barbara’s already clearly-limited patience. At the same time, Carlos sees in Jéssica a liveliness and adventurous spirit that’s now dead in him, and this leads him to make some extreme pronouncements that animate some of the most awkwardly funny scenes in the film. As the movie goes on, Jéssica gets increasingly fed up with her mother’s willingness to be patronized and humiliated by her employers. As various pushes come to shove, Jéssica’s compelled to share a secret with her mom that brings them closer even as it illustrates what some might see as an unfortunate pattern. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it’s consistently well-observed and engaging. The cast is terrific, and Muyleart has an understated assurance in her handling of film language. The depiction of a door that separates a large house’s kitchen from its dining room is especially astute throughout. As are Muyleart’s frequent uses of long, unbroken takes. By the end of “The Second Mother,” one feels enough at home with the characters to leave the theater with a healthy concern with where they’re going to end up next. This isn’t the kind of film one associates with potential sequels, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Muyleart follow up with Val and Jéssica some time.
    Glenn Kenny, Roger, 28th August 2015

    What you thought about The Second Mother

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    15 (20%) 37 (49%) 20 (27%) 3 (4%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 75
    Film Score (0-5): 3.85

    Collated Response Comments

    At out last screening night, 113 members were present to see some very interesting footage of “The Tribe”, the new short film to which the society has made a contribution. We also heard from Ayo Sanusi, the writer director form the Farnham University of the Arts about the origins of the film. We will all be looking forward to seeing the finished article in September. While reasonably well received, The Second Mother divided opinion. Many of you praised the “excellent ensemble playing and complimentary visuals” which showed a “clever and subtle portrayal of the vacuous lives of the bourgeoisie! … freedom through the generations was sharp and telling”. The plotting was considered either “a superb study of class relations – steady but at the same time – nuanced “and “very well observed “or “predicable and tiresome “even “boring”. One member told us that it was “enjoyable but not very memorable”. However, the majority of you did find the film “enjoyable and layered” albeit with the “somewhat one dimensional, (but the well-acted) rich family where Val and her daughter provided the interest” delivering a “good ending from an excellent ensemble cast”. “A warm subtle film with a great performance by the central character, Val. Who wouldn’t want a cuddle from her?” Other comments identified the key plot points as “… A good example of how younger generations don’t see or tolerate the structures between classes. Reminds me of “The Help”; different classes/races can meet, but at a certain point an invisible line can’t be crossed”. “An acute cinema of ideas”. “A film that made social comment in the wider picture combined with a close look at the smaller pictures of individuals. The acting spoke louder than the words to me”. “More like this please! A lovely portrait of maternal love and its complexities”. “A quality cautionary tale and parable. Well-acted and pretty credible – but without a Wow factor. No real surprises. A pleasant evening and well justified showing”. Others felt that “It left a lot of unresolved questions. Is history repeating itself or breaking the mould? I became bored part way through”. “A little predicable but amusing in parts. Felt quite claustrophobic – didn’t see much of Sao Paulo – but I guess that’s a reflection of Val’s life”. “Very interesting, but I found the girl’s behaviour not quite believable and the end puzzling. After realism we end with a fairy tale”. One observer told us that the “well drawn characters led to credible development of relationships”…that produced “a feel good film” but a “significant weakness was the periodic poor camerawork”. There were also a couple of comments which told us that the “sub titles” were “too quick. I could not read and watch the film easily”. Next screening 2nd May with AGM at 7.30. “Wryly observed and beautifully acted”. “Understated – a gentle comedy”. “A really entertaining presentation – with especially clever dialogue – and a most ingenious plotline”. “A lovely feel good film”. “Great ending. Fantastic female characters”. “Favourite film of the season so far. Excellent acting”. “Very realistic”. “Text book film making. Ticked all the boxes”. “Moving and well performed by the mother”. “Slow moving but very good characterisations”. “Excellent acting. You come to care about the mother and daughter”. “A gentle, humorous warm film- slow in parts but quite a pleasant ending – feel good. Left with a smile on my face”. “Very satisfying, everyone got what they deserved”. “Amusing, but the situation with Dr Carlos was not believable”. Subtitles are there to be read. Certainly early in the film they moved too quickly. I found in any event the “plot” difficult to follow. I would not recommend this film to anyone”. “Disappointing but a happy ending. Great acting by Val”.. “Good in parts but a bit twee”. Turgid way of making a telling point”. “Poorly acted in parts”. “Nothing much happens really”. No depth to the story”. “One or two interesting scenes but for the most part I was bored”. Val was well acted and an interesting character – good to see her change from “slave” to liberated woman after her daughter arrived”. “Just about held my attention and interest”.

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