THE SECOND MOTHER, Brazil’s entry as Best Foreign Language film at the 88th Annual Oscars–is a warm-hearted superbly acted, insightfully scripted tale about motherhood across class boundaries– that literally knows no bounds. Acclaimed Brazilian actress Regina Case stars as Val, a working class live-in housekeeper/nanny to a wealthy family in Sao Paulo, where she has become like a member of the family and second mother to the family’s son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) whom she has practically raised. But Val has left behind her own family, an estranged husband and a daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila) whom she hasn’t seen in ten years but whom she has financially supported from afar.
When Jessica who is now applying for admission to an elite university in Sao Paulo asks to come live with her mother at the home of her mother’s employers, Jessica’s presence and her “modern” ideas about class distinctions throws Val’s world– and everyone else’s– into upheaval.
Writer/director Anna Muylaert’s intelligent script and direction are simple on the surface, but unlock many layers. As an aspiring architect, Jessica’s interest in “modern design” not only applies to buildings, but is reiterated in the class distinctions she blurs; her very attitude as a young woman who sees herself as no different from the people her mother works for, is a challenge to Val’s world order and Vals’ view of herself as “less than” her rich bosses. In the course of the movie, Jessica’s sense of herself as an “equal” redraws all the boundaries among these relationships.
The very issue of motherhood is also redrawn and challenged– what is it to be a mother? Why does the vulnerable Fabinho feel so comforted by Val, but not his own mother? What impact has Val’s leaving Jessica to be raised by a second mother had on Jessica and her own capacity for mothering? And what of the artist husband, who leaps across the social boundaries as soon as the lovely Jessica walks in the door?
Regina Case and Camila Mardila shared a well-deserved Sundance Jury Award for their performances here as mother and daughter. Their interaction is utterly authentic; Val is funny, warm and expressive, as she dutifully maintains the formality and deference of a servant to her perceived masters. Then there’s the sleek, cool Jessica, breezing in as though she owns the world, casually availing herself of the guest room, Fabinho’s ice cream, and the “master’s” attention– without a second thought. Throughout, the love between mother and daughter is palpable beneath old hurts and new opportunities; we watch somewhat amused as old world ideas and newfangled style awkwardly collide in the kitchen where everyone tries to figure out where to sit and stand.
The ending finds Jessica’s aspirations rewarded in a world order based on merit rather than material goods, and Val wading into waters she never imagined. Muylaert chooses her closing images with great care; Regina Case’s big smile over a cup of coffee sipped from china she “reclaimed” from her employer, as she secretly delights in having found the place she’s been working toward her whole life– hits home.
See THE SECOND MOTHER in Portuguese with English Subtitles.