The Second Mother: The Social and Generational Divide in Contemporary Brazil
Val (Regina Casé) leaves Pernambuco, a poor state in the northeast of Brazil, to try to make a better life in São Paulo. She’s not on friendly terms with the father of her daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), so she decides to leave Jessica with relatives in Pernambuco while she settles in her new life. Eventually she plans to bring Jessica to live with her. In the meantime, she’ll be sending money to her relatives periodically to help them support her daughter.
Val starts working for an upper-middle-class family as their live-in housekeeper and nanny to Barbara and Carlos’ young son, Fabinho. Val and Fabinho develop a strong bond, and he becomes just like a son to her – hence the title of the movie in English, The Second Mother. The original Portuguese title means “What time will she be back?” It conveys both Fabinho’s anxiety about the busy professional and social life of his real mother and Jessica’s hope that she’ll see Val again.
Fabinho is the same age as the daughter Val left behind. Despite Val’s intention to go back at some point to get Jessica, with whom she speaks occasionally on the phone, she keeps putting off the trip for one reason or another. Jessica resents this profoundly.
Ten years go by. Fabinho has just signed up to sit college entrance exams. Val is surprised to hear from Jessica over the phone that she is coming to São Paulo to sit the exams, too. She wishes to become an architect and aims for the best university in the country – USP, in São Paulo. Val has mixed feelings about having her daughter back after all this time.
Jessica arrives in the city but, contrary to her expectations, finds out she’ll be sharing the small back room her mother has in her bosses’ house. Jessica isn’t happy with the situation: she thought her mom had her own place like a regular employee. Viewers can sense clouds gathering on the horizon. Conflict and confrontation are bound to follow.
This is a brief summary of Brazilian director Anna Muylaert’s new movie, and Brazil’s entry into this year’s foreign-language category at the Oscars. The film genuinely reflects the reality of the silent class struggle and the complex love/hate relationship between domestic workers and their bosses in Brazil. The key characters’ behavior (the arrogance of Barbara, a fashion consultant who treats Val with nauseating condescension; the passivity of Carlos, Barbara’s husband and a failed artist who accomplishes nothing but is the source of the family’s inheritance; and the indifference of Fabinho in his egotistical relationship with Val, his surrogate mother) is typical of the patronizing and tyrannical relationship usually established between long-term maids and the families they work for in Brazil. Supposedly, they treat Val “just like another member of the family,” but the truth is she’s submitted to inhumane working hours, she lives in a small degrading room at the back of their huge house and she’s not allowed many of the rights family members or regular workers have.
Such working conditions actually changed in 2013, with the approval of PEC 72 (which can be loosely translated as “PEC of the domestics”), a constitutional amendment that gives domestic workers the same labor rights as other professional classes in the country. It was a huge victory for these workers: it felt like a second abolition of slavery had taken place in the country.
The dark subject matter gives the movie pathos, yet it’s funny at times. Barbara treats Jessica well at first but soon develops a strong rivalry with her. Jessica makes it clear that she’s not the maid – her mother is. Carlos and Fabinho, on the other hand, are infatuated with the independence, intelligence and beauty of the newcomer, which only heightens Barbara’s anger and animosity toward the girl.
Muylaert cleverly frames windows, doors and narrow halls of the house as metaphors for Val’s limited point of view and her denial of the exploitation she’s subjected to. The writing (by Muylaert and Casé) is strong, naturalistic and insightful. However, Casé, a well-known comedian in Brazil, is no doubt the movie’s strongest asset. With a powerful, poignant and at times brilliant performance, already recognized and honored at the Sundance Festival, she carries The Second Mother.
The movie is a strong contender and deserves to be nominated as a finalist in the foreign-language category at the Oscars. Not to be missed!