A first impression of ‘The Second Mother’

The Brazilian film takes a compelling look at a family and the inherent class system.

‘The Second Mother’ movie review (photo credit: PR)
‘The Second Mother’ movie review
(photo credit: PR)
In Portuguese. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
The conceit of an attractive stranger coming to a wellordered household and shaking things up is a familiar plot device, but when it is done well, as it is in the new Brazilian movie The Second Mother, the result is a terrific story.
Like Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, which was reworked by Paul Mazursky in the 1980s as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the film The Second Mother investigates the realities of the class system and shows how barriers can tumble down when an outsider steps in.
In Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother, Val (Regina Case ), a devoted housekeeper, is the glue that holds together a complicated Sao Paolo family. The teenage son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), a sweet young man who is supposed to be studying for his university entrance exams, relies much more on Val to encourage him and discipline him than he does on his own mother, Barbara (Karine Teles).
Barbara is an accomplished professional who works long hours and left Val to raise him, while his wealthy but weak-willed father, Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), once dabbled in painting but now doesn’t do much of anything. Val has always given Fabinho the warmth he craves, and she also keeps the household running, making sure everyone wakes up on time and that the refrigerator is always stocked with their favorite foods. Val loves Fabinho and seems fulfilled with her work and her friends – other housekeepers in the neighborhood.
But then she gets a phone call that throws her off: Jessica (Camila Márdila), her adult daughter whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years, is coming to Sao Paolo to try to enroll in the university. For reasons that aren’t ever made entirely clear, she left Jessica to be raised by the girl’s father and his second wife, while she sent the money that paid for the child’s schooling. Jessica is a virtual stranger to her, but one Val welcomes with some trepidation but open arms.
Jessica is a self-assured, well-educated young woman who plans to study architecture and whose knowledge of the field impresses everyone. But although Val’s salary has made her relatively privileged upbringing possible, Jessica rejects the deference that comes along with Val’s subservient role in the house. Not content to sleep on a mattress on the floor in Val’s room, she asks to use the guest room, which Carlos and Barbara agree to. Fabinho is understandably taken with Jessica and, as Barbara and Val quickly guess, so is Carlos.
One of the conventions of this outsider story is that everyone in the family will be drawn to the interloper in a different way, and that the newcomer’s presence brings long-simmering conflicts to the surface. As the story plays out, there are few surprises. However, the acting is so good that it makes up for slightly predictable storytelling. Regina Case as Val is so convincing that it would be easy to believe she was a nonprofessional actor basically playing herself. In fact, Case is a wellestablished film and television actress (her bio on the Internet Movie Database reads, in part, “Few Brazilian artists leave such a rich, fun and coherent trail”), as well as a producer and writer. But Case’s performance as Val is a joy.
Case convinces us that Val has a largeness of spirit that always threatens to overwhelm her efforts to be an obedient servant. She is unaffectedly warm with Fabinho and cautious with her own daughter. She never for a moment seems like an educated person giving the impression of a lowerclass woman. It’s easy to like her and be annoyed with her, as the other characters are. The entire cast give good performances, but Case is the heart and soul of the movie.
Writer/director Muylaert wrote one of the best Brazilian movies I have seen, the 2006 film The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, which also starred Michel Joelsas.
The Second Mother is an entertaining look at class and family, and it proves that art-house films don’t have to be bleak.
Hebrew title: Ima Shniya
Written and directed by Anna Muylaert
With Regina Case, Michel Joelsas, Karine Teles, Camila Márdila
Running time: 115 minutes.