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THE SECOND MOTHER (2015) review

October 18, 2015

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written by: Anna Muylaert
produced by: Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane, Debora Ivanov & Anna Muylaert
directed by: Anna Muylaert
rating: R (for some language and some drug use)
runtime: 112 min.
U.S. release date: January 25, 2015 (Sundance) and August 28, 2015 (limited)

 

The housemaid and nanny are often presented as either a silent, dutiful supporting character in films or a comic relief presence with biting sarcasm. Rarely are they portrayed as real people who have a life or family outside their jobs, rarer still is there are films that takes their perspective. The Brazilian film “The Second Mother” is that rare film and it happens to be the country’s bid for Best Foreign Language Film in next year’s Academy Awards. No surprise there. This drama written and directed by Anna Muylaert follows one woman who experiences bittersweet conflict when her private life is integrated with her professional life as a live-in housemaid and nanny. It’s an assured film, balanced with needed levity and slight misdirection that offers fine performances which convey familial sacrifice and frustration with a firm confidence.

The film opens with housemaid Val (Regina Casé) watching over a young Fabinho as he swims in his family’s backyard pool on a beautiful summer day in São Paulo. We hear her on the phone,  asking to hear her daughter’s voice and  to tell her that her mother loves her. A decade later, we see Val taking care of the same high-class family, providing a loving presence for Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) at the employ of his parents, style guru Barbara (Karine Teles) and Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli). Her life of routine chores and prepared meals for the family is pleasantly interrupted by a call from her estranged daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who is university-bound and looking for a place to stay as she attempts to enroll in an elite school nearby. Val is excited to reunite with Jessica after years of separation due to custody woes and financial worries, but that excitement turns into embarrassment when her daughter treats her employer’s house as her own and bond’s Carlos, who takes a curious interest in her. Distraught by how forward Jéssica is, hostility rises between the mother and daughter about how each of them approach the present and their displeasures from the past.

 

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Muylaert draws from her own past for “The Second Mother”, using the nanny who cared for her own son after leaving her daughter. That seems understandable considering how intimate and specific the story and characters are here. It wasn’t uncommon for women in smaller towns to leave their children and move to São Paulo for work. One could imagine the challenges in growing attached to someone else’s child while raising them, only to have your own child become a stranger being raised by a stranger. The drama and confusion of such a situation and the struggle between family and work lends itself well to a cinematic story.

Muylaert and cinematographer Bárbara Alvarez provide a colorful palette, while working together to emphasize the point of view of a housemaid and how she sees the family she works for. The camera often stays in the kitchen when Val or Jessica are there, only looking beyond through the swinging door to see Carlos sitting at the dining room table. The family of three can be seen sitting there with their gaze mesmerized by each handheld electronic device, only breaking away to request something from Val – something they could easily get themselves. It takes the confident and curious Jéssica coming into her life to start Val questioning the boundaries and obedience for has toward her employers. Considering the patient woman has a stronger connection with Fabinho than he does with his own mother, it’s natural for Val to feel undervalued by Barbara, especially when Barbara questions why her son comes to Val with life’s concerns and issues.

 

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Barbara has much to learn from Val, but the limitations of social class and the employer/employee relationship blind the prideful woman from seeing such an opportunity. Is Val perfect? Definitely not. Muylaert has written a character for actress Casé – who is also a comedienne and television host in Brazil – to portray the struggle of both regret and sacrifice, realizing Márdila’s Jéssica will never truly know her own struggles until she herself becomes a mother. The relationship arc between mother and daughter and inevitable tension is beautifully mined, free from the potential for predictable melodrama and overacting.

However, the story does contain awkward moments when Carlos makes advances on Jéssica. It’s understandably since he sees a young woman who shares his passion for art and design, but it could’ve been presented with more subtlety. More natural is the way in which Barbara’s loss of patience increases with he living situation, often coming across as annoyed and frustrated by Jéssica’s presence.

Muylaert is fortunate to have a fantastic cast, led by Casé, who delivers spirited, nuanced work that expresses Val’s roller coaster emotions to a talented judgement of varying degrees. Márdila conveys a young woman who is  understandably disturbed by her mother’s blind allegiance to her boss and shows an equally understandable hurt when she feels her Val doesn’t defend her. They each have their own views, but haven’t truly known each other long enough to respect and appreciate them.

“The Second Mother” is a touching drama that includes some uncomfortable moments and successful tonal shifts from a writer/director who has created a film with heart. It becomes a picture which is simply a joy to watch unfold, even during awkward or heartbreaking moments. It provides us with a view-point that we probably never would’ve appreciated on our own and reminds us that movies have that kind of eye-opening potential.

 

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RATING: ***

 

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