I don’t have much of a handle on Brazilian cinema, but the examples I’ve seen seem to promise a laidback outdoor-living lifestyle riven with poverty but hardly hopelessness. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that makes it to screens outside the country, but The Second Mother, while not contradicting this — it’s about a domestic servant — at least gives a bit more ground-level social context. It reminds me of the Colombian film Gente de bien, released earlier this year, in the way it subtly but brutally dissects class tensions. In that film the son of poor parents goes to live with a rich family over the summer and is gradually shunned (a swimming pool is again a key locus of tension), but here the effects of class are both more subtle and more damaging. Val (Regina Casé, quite a big star in her native country) is a live-in servant at the home of a rich São Paulo couple, introduced caring for their young son before we flash forward a decade to when he’s applying for university. In many ways, as the English title suggests, she’s more of a mother to him than his real one, Barbara (seen only as a harried professional woman, conducting TV interviews or hosting parties), and there’s a genuine tender fondness between them. But, it turns out, Val has a daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), whom she’s not seen in a decade, who is coming to the big city to apply to become an architect. It’s when Jéssica arrives that things start to break apart, because she doesn’t have her mother’s internalised acceptance of their place in the pecking order, and after seeing the cramped basement conditions her mother is housed in, is happy to accept a spacious guest room from the family’s father Dr Carlos, and swim in their pool — lines which Val would never cross and which she gets increasingly agitated over, even as Barbara and Carlos remain polite (though in the mother’s case through ever more obviously gritted teeth).
All the drama really is in the little gestures, social faux pas, which become a series of small details that build — both for the viewer and, it turns out, for Val — into a damning indictment of privilege. Aside from the swimming pool, there’s also, for example, a set of coffee cups with coffee pot which Val gets for Barbara on her birthday, a present you get the sense Val can ill afford but feels compelled to give on such an important occasion (but also because she wants to ask if her daughter can come to stay for a short while, a question which is awkwardly brushed off initially). Immediately we sense that this gift is tacky in Barbara’s eyes and, though gracious, she quickly hides it away, even hustling Val back into the kitchen when she tries to use it at a dinner party, preferring something a bit more Scandinavian. The film is filled with this kind of observation, making it, in its small way, something of a domestic horror story, albeit one in which the most vicious thing that happens is that boundaries are enforced between the servants’ quarters and where Barbara spends her time. Or perhaps more vicious still is the way that a mother can grow up not even knowing her own daughter because of the work she does. The film’s original title translates as “What time will she come home?”, a plaintive plea to Val from the young son at the start about his mother, but which ends up applying just as much to Val’s relationship to Jéssica. It all makes you wonder about the feel-good angle of the film’s poster, though that does come after a fashion. And most welcome it is too.
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert; Cinematographer Bárbara Alvarez; Starring Regina Casé, Camila Márdila; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 16 September 2015.