Anna Muylaert got more than a great performance by casting Regina Casé as Val, the old-fashioned house maid to a wealthy Sāo Paolo family, in her drama “The Second Mother.” She subverted an entire media personality as Casé holds a position in Brazilian culture similar to that of Oprah Winfrey in America. But even for those international audiences unaware of the iconography Casé carries, the film still works marvelously.
Muylaert’s film functions as an insightful, incisive look at modern class dynamics on the strength of its script and the characters who populate it. While countless film relegates household workers like Val to background characters, “The Second Mother” grants her protagonist status and a rich, complicated interior life.
After decades of care for her upper-class family – and essentially serving as the surrogate mother for their teenage son Fabinho – Val has grown quite comfortable in her role. She has internalized the rules and divisions that govern the household, accepting the arrangements as practically natural.
That all changes, however, with the arrival of Val’s biological daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdilao). After years being raised by relatives, Jéssica seeks a stable place to live while she applies to college and ultimately decides the best option is to move in with her estranged mother. The family matriarch Barbara insists Jéssica will be welcome in the house, even going out of her way to make sure the newest arrival feels welcome and comfortable.
But everyone gets a little more than they bargained for with Jéssica, who pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior for the household help. She resists acquiescing to the second-class citizen position to which Val resigns herself, acting as if she deserves equal access to the house in the same way as Fabinho. To Val’s surprise, the family scarcely kicks up a fuss!
As Jéssica tramples the usual separations between classes and generations, “The Second Mother” exposes the divisions in society. In doing so, Muylaert asks if they have any place in a system that supposedly fosters meritocracy and upward mobility. Her exploration is both gripping to watch in the moment and fascinating to ponder after the film finishes. B+ /