A film like “The Second Mother” is an arthouse gem! You can be thoroughly entertained by the beautiful story, and dig into the social commentary all at the same time. It’s a comedy of manners that speaks to class boundaries that can mold someone’s character and stir an inner desire to break through them.
Val (Regina Case) is an old school, by the book, live-in housekeeper who takes pride in her work. She missed out on much of her daughter Jessica’s (Camila Mardila) life by working for her employers, Barbara (Karine Teles) and Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli). Their teenage son, Fabhino (Michael Joelsas), filled the void of hands on motherhood for Val as she spent ten years practically raising him.
When Jessica has the opportunity to study in Sao Paulo, Val invites her to stay with her, with permission from her employers. It’s in Jessica’s entrance to the household that the boundaries between Val and the family she works for become apparent. Jessica is treated with respect as an honored guest in the home. Regardless of her daughter’s fresh arrival, Val has to fetch water, clear the table, and continue to fulfill her obligations as the housekeeper.
In fact, Val is treated like a remote control throughout the film, called upon when needed and tossed aside for later when she’s not. In seeing her mother treated this way, Jessica looks at her with disdain rather than love. She can’t understand why Val submits to being treated as a “second class citizen”. On top of the fact that she already feels like her mother abandoned her, Jessica refuses to subject herself to the unspoken rules of being in the home. A pool is just a pool to Jessica, but to Val it’s her employer’s pool and she can’t go in.
The light-hearted humor is what makes the film fun to watch, and Regina Case’s performance is the driving force behind it. You can tell that Val keeps her wild child locked away due to years of suppressing her desires to get the job done, but certain scenes that let her come out of character give us a glimpse at what she feels inside. Whether she’s hiding behind the kitchen door to eavesdrop on Barbara and Carlos’s conversation with Fabhino, applying a bit of Barbara’s lotion in secret, or hiding Fabhino’s weed for him, Val is more than just the help.
Framing is everything in this film! Not a shot was taken without director Anna Muylaert’s direction. The camera stays locked down in the beginning of the film with no pans. Every shot is a rigid frame, much like Val’s life. She shoots from the kitchen, into the family dining area, allowing us to see a sliver of Barbara sitting at the table. It’s the visual inaccessibility of the frame that supplements the lack of access that Val has within the home. When Jessica arrives at the house, the camera is still selective as to what it captures, but starts moving within scenes and it continues to be less stifling through the end of the film as Val starts to take of some of the chains in her life. These subtle camera decisions are what makes the film worth multiple viewings.
“The Second Mother” is a foreign film but a universal story. It’s about class, forgiveness, and the different types of families that can exist. It’s certainly award worthy, and solid entertainment!