Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother is rife with hidden truths and double meanings. It’s a story where everything is what it seems, yet at turns deceives the audience as much as it does the characters involved. How does this work, and have I confused you yet? The Second Mother isn’t confusing at all. Brazil’s Oscar hope for Best Foreign Language Film serves as a reminder that being content doesn’t always equal a life well spent. Class and family are successfully tackled topics whereas a romantic subplot doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the story. Fortunately, there is one performance to distract us from any shortcomings, and that comes courtesy of the pitch-perfect Regina Casé.
Val (Casé) has been working as a maid for her employers Barbara (Karine Teles) and Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) for over a decade. She has helped raise their son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), in addition to maintaining the day-to-day cleanliness of their beautiful home in Sao Paolo and preparing each meal. She is treated well enough by the parents of the household, but it is her relationship with Fabinho that makes her truly happy. Muylaert’s script deftly defines the relationships: Val/Fabinho – family, Val/Barbara – family/employee, Val/Carlos – employee. Despite the more impersonal relationship, Carlos treats her better than Barbara, who can’t help but waft about with an air of superiority.
Trouble arises with the arrival of Val’s daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), whom Val has not seen in a decade for undefined family reasons. In addition to being outspoken over what her mother does for a living, Jéssica begins to break down the barrier between the servants and the served as she gets treated as a proper guest of the household. She eats meals with them, sleeps in a fully furnished guest room, and grows closer to both Carlos and Fabinho. Val laments, “The maid’s daughter sitting at the bosses’ table,” to which Jéssica replies, “They are not my bosses.”
I can’t think of another film that covers this specific storyline. In Downton Abbey or even the classic British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, the drama/comedy that unfolds is due to the roles that are set in stone for each individual. In The Second Mother, Márdila’s role of Jéssica takes this to a different place — a new place and a time where a character has a wholly original function. It all comes down to Muylaert’s careful construction of plot and character, and of course the lead character herself.
Casé pulls off a comedic performance that never stretches too wide. It’s a heartwarming role that Casé keeps within the realms of this supposed reality — one in which the biggest feat of physical comedy is trying to figure out how to arrange a new coffee set. (Seriously. It’s a great bit.) She tries to spy on her daughter with a fellow housekeeper with only a nearby ladder to play physical comedy with. She stands by a closed door to eavesdrop on the family, exasperated while trying not to be heard. Val knows her place, but as the film progresses, so does her thought process.
In addition to its memorable lead, The Second Mother highlights motherhood and what that entails. Recently, actress Kim Cattrall stated that she’s a parent, though she has no children. Cattrall told the BBC, “There is a way to become a mother in this day and age that doesn’t include your name on the child’s birth certificate. You can express that maternal side of you very, very clearly, very strongly. It feels very satisfying.” This can describe the affection Val feels for young Fabinho. These two characters embrace the parent/child dynamic in a way that Val cannot with Jéssica or Fabinho with his own mother. What is a mother? What makes a mother? It’s a question with no definitive answer once you shake off the albatross that can be Merriam-Webster.
I can’t let The Second Mother off the hook entirely. There is that squeamish subplot I alluded to way back at the beginning that doesn’t work. It isn’t anything against the performers, but its one-sided nature calls attention away from what works in the movie. Leaving the characters alone to figure out whether they’re a family or employers/employees is far more interesting than what Muylaert attempts to do here.
This is easily the most removable piece of an otherwise smart and strong movie. The Second Mother manages to remain funny throughout its depictions of class, struggle, and motherhood — stories mostly told to death in dramatic fashion. Casé takes Muylaert’s thoughtful material and rises to the occasion in effortless fashion — a showcase by way of a non-showy performance. If your heart doesn’t soar during a phone call near the end of the film, I’ll have to remember to ask you what it’s like to be dead.
Can’t end on that note. Let me try this: Enjoy the movie!