The Second Mother (2015)

foreign film:
Anna Muylaert

Reviewed by:
Rating:
4
On September 30, 2015
Last modified:September 30, 2015

Summary:

A mother who is a live-in domestic in Sao Paulo is torn between loyalty to her estranged daughter & her employers when the girl moves into her small servant quarters & ignores social boundaries.

Que Horas Ela Volta (Original Title)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hours 52 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 0; Language 3; Sex /Nudity 3.

Our rating (1-5): 4.5

You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.

Psalm 18:27

But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Matthew 18:30

Val&Jess
Jessica and her mom Val disagree over social etiquette. (c) 2015 Oscilloscope Laboratories

This is the first of Brazilian director/writer Anna Muylaert ‘s nine films that I have seen: based on this I would love to see the others. Second Mother is an engrossing low key case study of class differences and mother-daughter relatationships. Although set in Brazil, the attitude of the affluent wife in this film is shared by the well off in America and Europe as well. There are actually two “second mothers,” the one whom we do see being Val (Regina Case), a middle-aged live-in domestic in São Paulo, and Sandra whom we never see, but is referenced a number of times. Val takes good care of the son of her employers in the city, while the Sandra cares for Val’s daughter hundreds of miles away.

Val has worked for well over a decade for Dr. Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli) and his wife Barbara (Karine Teles), Dona Barbara as Val always addresses her. She is actually closer emotionally to her employers teenaged son son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) than Barbara, the latter neglecting the boy because she is so immersed in her fashion business. S he has made quite a name for herself, as we see near the beginning a film crew has come in the morning to tape an interview on the ocassion of her birthday.

Barbara’s reception of Val’s birthday gift reveals a great deal about her. When she unwraps Val’s gift of a modernistic set of black and white thermos and six cups and saucers, she thanks her perfunctally, but when Val starts to store it with the other dishes, Barbara tells her to keep it in the box for “a special occasion.” Then later during her party when Val places the set on a tray, Barbara, stopping her at the kitchen door, scolds her, telling her to go back and use the other dishes. This gift figures throughout the film, becoming a funny symbol of rebellion at the climax.

Val is surprised to receive a phone call from her estranged teeanaged daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila) that she will be flying to the city to take the entrance examination at the University and would like to stay with her. When Val divorced her husband years before and could find no work in their home town, she had come to Sao Paul so she could earn enough for child support. This meant virtually abandoning Jessica to the stepmother Sandra, something that we quickly learn Jessica has resented so much that the two have not communicated in years. In the scenes in which Val holds and coddles Fabinho, even allowing him during one night when he feels lonely to climb in and sleep with her in the same bed, we see what Jessica has lost out on.

Dr. Carlos and Barbara readily give their permission for Val to put up her daughter until she can obtain her own lodgings. Enroute from the airport Jessica is upset to learn that they will be living at the home of her mother’s employers. She is even more perturbed by the cramped windowless room assigned her mother, ignoring Val’s proud statement that Barbara paid for the new mattress spread out on the floor for her. When the family meets her and givers her a tour, Jessica notices that there is a guest room—in fact, it is a suite with its own bathroom. As I recall it was due to jessica’s prompting, Dr. Carlos suggests that she could use it. The girl quickly accepts the polite offer, much to the displeasure of Barbara and Val.

When they are alone, Val rebukes Jessica, telling her bluntly that the offer was mere politness, to which the expected reply should have been “Thank you, but no.” This is the beginning of a tug of war between the socially aware Val and her clueless daughter, the latter continuing in her egalitarian ways. Val is upset even by Jessica dropping the “Dona” when addressing her employer, knowing full well that the affluent woman lays stress on the “almost” when she says about Val, “She’s almost a part of our family.”

There are numerous scenes in which we see the gap between Val and her “almost family.” First, there is the dingy room with no windows in their basement that they expect Val to be content in. Even while showing the newly arrived Jessica around their modernistic house, the employers send Val off on an errand or two. During the party when Val circulates, offering the guests tidbits on a tray, no one looks at her, accepting or waving away the tray away. She is invisible to the guests, noticed by the hostess only when she is about to bring out the gift of cheap dishes. There is also a touch of jealousy as Barbara begins to notice that during moments of stress and hurt her son turns to Val for comfort. Val at first accepts this treatment as her due, much as many of the servants do in Downtown Abbey, but for Jessica, raised by a stepmother with very different set of values, it is another matter. With its theme of liberation of the spirit Ms. Muylaert ‘s work reminds me of another film (though much, much darker) about a freed-up Latin American woman, this one from the other side of the continent, Argentina’s 1985 Oscar winner, The Official Story.

During the few days following Jessica’s arrival both mother and daughter grow in understanding—how can the latter not give up her illusion of social equality when Barbara not only orders her out of the swank swimming pool when Fabinho and a friend toss her in with them, but even orders her pool man to drain it? There is also the matter of a couple of incidents when Dr. Carl expresses more than paternal feelings toward the girl when they are alone. Leaving the house for digs of her own, Jessica is upset that her mother did not stand up more for her. Thus Val is town between loyalties—to her employers and to her daughter.

What the mother eventually does—and it includes that boxed coffee server set—is heartening, a wonderful moment of class rebellion and familial reconciliation. There is a family secret that comes out that no doubt fuels Val’s little moment of liberation, leading to her sacrificial act that assists in reconciliation. Although not as dramatic (in a bombastic way) as the scene in which Rocky Balboa finally easily runs up the steps of the Phildalphia Art Museum, Val’s moment is just as inspiring. Filmmaker Anna Muylaert’s values are very much in line with the Biblical world view of the lifting up of the lowly in anticipation of a world in which the first will be last, and the last first.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Oct. VP.

A mother who is a live-in domestic in Sao Paulo is torn between loyalty to her estranged daughter & her employers when the girl moves into her small servant quarters & ignores social boundaries.

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