This Brazilian family drama is the debut feature by Anna Muylaert, and it has been made with skill and confidence. It explores class and age divides by way of one Sao Paolo household, contrasting the lives and attitudes of the wealthy bohemian family who own it with those of principal staff member Val (Regina Casé), a long-term, live-in housemaid and nanny, and later on Val’s daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who comes to stay with them. Val has worked for the family for years, forming a strong bond with only child Fabhino (Michel Joelsas) in particular, but this job security has come at a price: a prologue reveals that Val had to move far away from her home in order to find work, and had to leave Jéssica behind; in this opening scene Val wears a formal white outfit, but when the action moves on to the present day we see that she has become more relaxed and informal in terms of her clothing, and familiarity has set in. However, as we soon discover, the longevity of employment has partly come about because the hard-working Val has always respected certain unseen boundaries and still follows unwritten rules within the house; the presence of Jéssica – who does not share her mother’s deference – sends the household into turmoil, exacerbating problems or ill feelings that already exist while also creating entirely new ones, and the behaviour of several characters changes while she is a guest.
To her credit Muylaert devotes plenty of time to all of the relationships that exist between her principal characters. Val and Jéssica aren’t close, and Jéssica understandably harbours some resentment towards her mother. There is some distance between Fabhino and his own mother Barbara (Karine Teles), a successful and busy businesswoman, and Barbara craves the physical contact and warmth that Fabhino and Val share. Meanwhile Barbara’s marriage to artist husband Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) looks to be faltering, especially when Carlos – who feels personally and creatively stifled by his current lifestyle – takes a shine to the teenage house guest. There is, additionally, some fairly innocent fliration between Jéssica and Fabhino, who are the same age and will be sitting the same exam. Barbara, feeling that she is losing both control of the household and the stability of her family, becomes increasingly upset by the situation. Meanwhile Val’s relationship with her employers is changing: at first it seems like her presence in the house for a decade means that she is considered to be ‘one of the family’, but Muylaert skilfully deconstructs this idea by way of a series of low-key incidents and interactions; additionally, as Fabhino approaches adulthood he no longer needs nannying, while Val’s daily routine – particularly with regard to mealtimes – illustrates that she is still considered a servant first and foremost by Barbara and Carlos.
The writer/director cleverly gives the viewer an understanding of the communal and private spaces that exist within the house, and uses certain objects to highlight both the unwritten rules that exist and the differences in the social standing of the characters. Val has never used the family’s swimming pool, for example, but Jéssica does not hesitate to do so; when we see Val in the water later on it feels, quite bizarrely, like an act of rebellion. Jéssica also rejects the offer of a cheaper tub of ice cream, preferring a luxury brand which is supposed to be reserved for the spoilt Fabhino. A coffee service set – and a painting by Carlos – are also used to subtly enhance the divide between working class Val, on one side, and the upper middle-class family on the other, highlighting their different tastes. Muylaert also films less of the house than we might imagine, which helps us to understand that Val is only welcome in certain communal areas: the kitchen, for example, or the dining room, where she clears plates and serves dishes while the three family members ignore one another in favour of their smartphones. Anywhere that is off limits to the housemaid is also also off limits to the viewer. A connecting corridor is presented as a kind of no-man’s land.
Casé – a well-known TV star in Brazil – is very good in the main role, giving one of those performances that’s so full of perfectly-judged gestures and expressions you feel like you know exactly what her character is thinking at all times. There’s some excellent support from the cast, too, particularly Teles and Mutarelli as the couple who own the house; we see the husband and wife in the same room regularly but they only share a handful of lines together on screen, a device that perfectly highlights their disintegrating marriage and is typical of the film’s subtlety. The Second Mother is an intelligent, heartfelt and heartwarming piece that makes its points about class, age and society with elegance, and I look forward to seeing more from Muylaert in the future.
Directed by: Anna Muylaert.
Written by: Anna Muylaert.
Starring: Regina Casé, Camila Márdila, Michel Joelsas, Karine Teles, Lourenço Mutarelli.
Cinematography: Bárbara Alvarez.
Editing: Karen Harley.
Music: Vitor Araújo, Fábio Trummer.
Running Time: 109 minutes.