The Second Mother – Movie Review
Rating: B+ (Very Good)
Most of the Brazilian films that receive imports tend to revolve around slums and the criminal life in Rio de Janeiro. To the average viewer, Brazil might seem like a third world country in a low economic rut. In actuality, it’s a multicultural nation with various classes populating the cities, which range from metropolitan to rural. That makes the appearance of The Second Mother on this side of the equator that much more refreshing. Director/writer Anna Muylaert explores the point of view of the maid in many Brazilian homes and the relationship with their boss. What roles do they play? What is the proper conduct? These are the questions asked by this film and the answers work in creating a solid set of characters with which to follow.
The main focus of The Second Mother on Regina Case’s house maid Val allows for opportunities of both subtle humor and effective drama. Muylaert understands the household dynamic and portrays it in a way that’s both simple and yet will be able to cross cultural barriers. This is the sort of film where subtitles won’t take away from viewers who don’t speak Portuguese. Case’s performance shows the history behind her relationship with the family and how importantly she holds this position. She feels like a genuine member of the house and Case’s acting makes the part that much more real. The film doesn’t venture too far away from the home as it seeks to show a middle class Sao Paulo family in their natural habitat and invites us into that world.
The disruption that comes when Val’s daughter Jessica enters the picture is when The Second Mother delves even deeper into the class divide. Every character changes in different ways due to Jessica showing up. In addition to Val, there’s another side to the mother of the house. Karine Teles’s Barbara becomes slowly irate by Jessica’s presence, but her reasons are understandable. Camila Mardila has a tricky role to play as Jessica, having to portray a slightly egotistic teenager, but still one with dimensions that explain her personality. She’s basically a young woman used to be in the middle class and then has to adjust to living with somebody she views more like a house keeper and less like a mother.
One of the most curious aspects comes from the relationship between Val and Barbara’s son. It shows an interesting dynamic between how a son might view a woman who raised him versus a mother who wasn’t that involved. The film thankfully doesn’t force a romance between Fabinho and Jessica, which would have been the most obvious clichéd route Muylaert could have gone down. However, she doesn’t entirely avoid the subject of irrational crushes. One character element that feels unnecessary is a sudden affection that the father of the house develops for Jessica. It seems more like something for the character to do and is an odd detour the film takes. It ultimately amounts to nothing and doesn’t have any effect on the larger story at hand.
With The Second Mother, Anna Muylaert is able to show an average family’s life in Sao Paulo and it’s that snapshot that makes the film appealing. It’s a movie of subtleties and a solid representation of Brazilian cinema away from the criminal sagas and slum-set stories that seem to get the bulk of attention outside of South America. The country has a rich filmmaking tradition filled with these sorts of films and it’s a miracle that not only has it gotten a release in Canada, but day-and-date with its home nation. This is a part of Brazil the news and media don’t focus on and frankly, they should.