“They are not my bosses” shouts a frustrated Jéssica (Camila Márdila) to her estranged mother Val (Regina Casé). The “they” in this conversation is the wealthy São Paulo couple who Val works for. Believing in the unspoken rule that servants, and in this case their offspring, do not co-exist within the same space as their bosses, Val finds it difficult to make sense of the defiant actions, such as eating at the main table rather than the servant’s quarters, of her daughter.
Jéssica’s words regarding control run deeper than mere social commentary. They also speak to the fractured parent/child bonds in their relationship; that uncomfortable wedge between them caused by Val’s quest for economic security.
It is this sense of distance that anchors much of the drama in Anna Muylaert’s wonderfully thought-provoking film The Second Mother. Determined to make a better life for her daughter, Val left her home in Pernambuco, and Jéssica in the custody of her grandfather, in order to work as a housemaid for Carlos (Karine Teles) and Bárbara (Lourenço Mutarelli). Living in a small cramped room in the couple’s lavish home, and raising their son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) as if he was her own child, Val has worked hard to earn enough money to send back home.
The sacrifice did not come without its consequences though.
Separated from her child for thirteen years, Val cannot shake the deep guilt that she feels. This especially hits home when Jéssica notifies her that she would like to take the entrance exam at the University of São Paulo. Needing a place to stay until the exams, which Fabinho is also planning to take, are over, Jéssica inquires about the possibility of staying with her mother for a few days. Excited at the prospects of seeing her daughter, and getting permission from her bosses to allow Jéssica to move in, Val views this as a perfect opportunity to make up for lost time. However, the presence of her daughter immediately sends shockwaves throughout the household.
A confident young woman in her own right, Jéssica is not the obedient and grateful daughter Val envisioned her to be. Unwilling to be treated like a second-class citizen, Jéssica’s independent spirit immediately evokes feelings of inspiration and jealousy in Carlos and Bárbara respectively. As Jéssica receives special treatment from Carlos, including being allowed to sleep in the spacious guest room, long standing tensions between mother and daughter begins to boil to the surface.
Providing an honest portrait of the sacrifices that working-class individuals make for the sake of their family, The Second Mother manages to navigate through issues of class and guilt in a compelling way. Muylaert takes her time peeling away the layers of this delicious fruit, never succumbing to the obvious clichés one would expect. She lets her characters’ emotions grow in an organic way, thus revealing the complex fabric woven into each relationship in the film. Whether focusing on the divide between Val and Jéssica, Carlos and Bárbara’s crumbling marriage, or the class structure at play within the home, Muylaert’s script is consistently captivating.
While Muylaert crafts an engaging tale, it is Regina Casé’s seemingly effortless performance that allows the film to truly soar. She brings a mesmerizing earnestness to the role without ever losing sight of the overall intricacies of Val’s situation. Casé ensures that Val is more than a mere maid; she is the embodiment of all of those who have struggled for a better life, and paid a huge price as a result.
The fact that Val has yet to truly enjoy the fruits of her labour is not lost on Muylaert or the audience. When the character final does do something for herself, in the guise of a defiant act, it is not an uproarious moment, but rather a subtle one filled with honest emotion. Similar to Val, The Second Mother does not need flashy statements to make its points. It resonates with audiences thanks in part to the thoughtful and rich way it explores the fractured characters within it.