The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)
Brazil (2015) Dir. Anna Muylaert
Ah, the class system. Where would we be without it? Downtrodden people would have nothing to get angry about while the privileged would have no-one to look down upon. As divisive as this may be, one really depends on the other, so this quietly astute drama from Brazil asks the simple question “Which side needs the biggest kick up the arse the most?”
Val (Regina Casé) has been working as a live in housemaid for an affluent family in São Paulo for over a decade, the money from which has gone towards her only daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who is being raised back home in Pernambuco. Her employers, Barbara (Karine Teles) and Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli) regard Val as one of the family, entrusting her with tending to their now teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas).
Having not seen her daughter in ten years Val is shocked to receive a call from Jéssica asking if she can stay with her while she takes her entrance exams for the University of São Paulo. Jéssica is invited to stay in the family home where it is apparent both Fabinho and Carlos take a shine to her. But Jéssica’s blunt and unaffected manner appals Val and upsets the cosy dynamic of the household.
If this sounds like a steamy drama of an unprincipled feisty teenage female ruffling the feathers of the nouveau riche by creating some sexual tension then you’ve misread the above synopsis. This is anything but an excuse for such tawdry shenanigans, instead The Second Mother (the literal translation of the title is When Is She Coming Back?) is a kitchen sink social drama that makes its statement in more subtle ways.
Anna Muylaert has crafted a delightfully poignant and well observed tale of the “us and them” divide that exists within the one household, despite all claims to the contrary that they are one cohesive unit. Val’s very existence and the fact she is on the payroll immediately negates that notion but neither side sees it that way, especially not Fabinho who sees Val as more of a mother figure than his own mother.
The irony of such a sad but touching sentiment is at the heart of the dramatic conflict when Jéssica arrives. Unable to call Val “Mum”, using her name instead, Jéssica’s estrangement from Val is quietly contained for the most part, but after seeing the way she is treated by the family, Jéssica’s progressive mindset finds little to admire about her skivvy mother.
Barbara remains decidedly frosty yet civil towards Jéssica while Carlos insists she has the run of the house as their guest, including the spacious guest bedroom which dwarfs the pokey cupboard Val lives. One particularly amusing scene sees Barbara begrudgingly making her guest Jéssica breakfast as Val had overslept, not taking kindly to the indignity of the lady of the house serving the daughter of the hired help.
Val is mortified by this and continues to be ashamed at Jéssica accepting the open invitations and hospitality shown to her by Carlos and Fabinho; the very idea that Jéssica should sit at the same table and eat the same food as her employers is repellent to Val and she apologises profusely at every cost. Jéssica however can’t see what the fuss is about, instead fumes at how much the family takes advantage of her mother.
Muylaert plays her hand with a sangfroid confidence, never overegging the drama or labouring the points she needs to make within the subtext. The closest we get to convention is an awkward stolen kiss between Carlos – in fact, the true wealth owner of the family while Barbara is the public face – and Jéssica to suggest all is not well in the master bedroom.
We get a hint that this supposed close knit family is a divided one during an early dinner scene where all three are fiddling on their phones in silence while a salad is waiting to be cleared by Val. The most obvious indicator is the relationship between Val and Fabinho providing the film with its ironic fulcrum – Jéssica missing the mother who is playing surrogate to another woman’s child.
The parallels of the two situations are laid out clearly enough without the need to be blatant about it, leaving it to viewer discretion to decide if either mother has a case to answer to. Muylaert asserts that rich or poor, neglect of one’s family is a heartache waiting to happen but motivations can make all the difference to our perspective of whether the choice was the right one to make.
Restricting the social stratum to one household provides ample opportunity for keeping the situations grounded in reality and the characters relatable to the audience. The mise-en-scene is very much one of observance with little in the way of dramatic close-ups and flashy shot composition, while the performances are set to natural rhythms to avoid cliché and caricature.
Driving the whole film is the central performance by veteran of TV and screen Regina Casé, whose experience in comedy shines through in Val’s amiable and infectious personality. At no point do we feel Casé is acting, she is that natural. Every nuance feels without construction or forethought, whether Val is pandering to her employers, freaking out at Jéssica’s behaviour or simply doing her duties.
Relative newcomer Camila Márdila holds her own as Jéssica, providing contemporary opposition Val’s hidebound ways, whilst Karine Teles is suitably snobby as Barbara but never descends into parody territory, even when juxtaposed against her less affected husband and son. Lourenco Mutarelli and Michel Joelsas are less fleshed out characters but their contributions are respectable.
Working as a distant companion piece to Chilean drama The Maid and boasting one of the most personable and realistic performances captured in film in a long time, The Second Mother is a sublime satirical social drama that proves it is possible to make a cogent point without having to raise your voice.