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"The Second Mother": Maid in Brazil

By Laura Blum

You can take a course on class and power relations in Brazil or you can see The Second Mother. Of the two, Anna Muyleart's stirring social drama will probably deliver more relatable insights. It will also stay with you longer. Not since The Lives of Others has a film so deftly parsed cause-and-effect interactions as communal hierarchies -- and their underlying assumptions -- come undone. 

The Second Mother manages the rare feat of rhetoricizing poetically without sounding preachy or shrill. It unfolds in an upper-crust São Paulo home where Val (Regina Casé) has lived and worked as a domestica since leaving her native Recife in the country's poorer northeast. When she's not watering her employees' manicured grounds or vacuuming their airy manse, she's catering to their picky food habits and otherwise knowing her place. Not that they're meanies: style guru Dona Bárbara (Karine Teles) and idle heir Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) treat their help with as much civility as can be expected from the legacy of Brazilian slavery. When Val requests a special favor, Dona Bárbara allows that she is "almost family," having practically raised their now teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) since boyhood.

That favor -- letting Val's daughter come stay for a while -- will upset Val's balancing act and expose Brazil's arcane upstairs-downstairs traditions. Jéssica (Camila Márdila) is Fabinho's age, but she has missed out on the maternal coddling that has made Val more of a mother figure to him than Dona Bárbara. It's been nearly a decade since the sharp, enterprising Millennial has seen her own biological mother, much less shared the same roof. But the real gap is attitudinal.

"Architecture is the instrument of social change," Jéssica asserts in her provincial twang soon after moving in. She, like Fabinho, is prepping for her university entrance exams over the summer. Her sights are set bracingly far: on the University of São Paulo's Architecture and Urbanism School, or FAU. But meanwhile she will study up-close the structure of master-servant dynamics.  

Jéssica has zero scruples about helping herself to the host family's amenities. It's much to Muyleart's credit that we want both to smack the heedless brat for her grandioses entitlement as much as to salute her healthy self-esteem and evolved social philosophies. Why slum it in her mom's lowly maid's quarters when she can luxuriate, at Carlos's urging, in the guest room? Val is as appalled by Jéssica's nerve as Jéssica is by Val's sycophancy. "When they ask if we want (things), they're sure we're going to say no,” admonishes Val.

It's one thing for Jéssica to sit at the family table or cop a scoop of Fabinho's special ice cream. But it's quite another for her to enter the backyard pool. That plunge gets a huge splash, when Bárbara Alvarez's camera lingers in slow motion for what seems like an eternity. What's that edit doing there? It's almost as if, from Bárbara's mortified perspective, the caste's amniotic fluid now holds impure blood.

Muyleart welcomed this interpretation when she spoke with in New York. But she gave other reasons for drawing out Jéssica's thrust: "It's about conquering a place, and the leisure place is the most forbidden." With a shoutout to Pier Paolo Pasolini, she elaborated, "Jéssica goes in, in, in -- and the swimming pool is the middle of the film -- and then she goes out, out, out." The pool taboo is so powerful and "so ridiculous" that Muyleart felt compelled to exaggerate its sense of danger "in the social context." Without this heightened stylization, the Paulistana writer/director worried the moment "wouldn't be understandable outside Brazil."

Inside Brazil, Jéssica's story itself would have vexed many viewers in the not-so-distant past, according to Muyleart. "Twenty years ago she would have been a joke." The filmmaker ascribes a good bit of the progress to Brazil's former president and Workers' Party co-founder, popularly known as Lula. In particular, Muyleart cited the opportunities in higher education that her first-ever lower class president created for students of color. "It's not all the changes that the country needs, but we're starting to have modest improvements." Today a Jéssica "could be real."

Nowhere is the film's ideology better pictured than in a simple walk up a ramp. It's an astonishing visual, really. Jéssica and and the two bluebloods accompanying her cross an inclined entryway on the FAU campus where she alone will continue her ascent. Advancing in single file, they may as well be enacting the Ascent of Man.

The image anatomizes Jéssica's earlier comment about architecture and social transformation. Only now she has passed her entrance exams with flying colors. Now education and upward mobility are attainable prospects and not just a self-dare.

As Muyleart explained, choosing to have Jéssica study architure was a way of rattling the holdover foundations of post-colonial society: "Until what century will we go on repeating those things of the past?" she wondered, noting, "Education in Brazil is not for everybody. The public education is completely different from the private education for 5 percent of the people, which I include myself in. The other 95 percent don't have teachers, schools or conditions to get better."

No wonder Jéssica's test results fill Val with parental pride. How they will affect her motherly instincts and, hilariously, her sense of decorum inspires some of the film's richest payoffs. Yet, if anything, Muyleart delivers too much of a good thing. A second poolside transgression releases all the evidence needed to establish that a major redemption has taken place. Depending on your taste for melodrama, what follows is either or deeply satisfying or sudsier than a telenovela.

Either way, it gives away little to say that end of the film locates our characters on new grounding. To extend the architectural metaphor, if at first they are all placed off-kilter, after finding themselves, they are well positioned to thrive. As Muyleart put it, "They can proceed to live their lives authentically."

"Authentic" is certainly a word that comes to mind with the film's naturalistic performances and tart narrative. The Second Mother premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where Casé and Márdila won a Special Jury Prize for Acting, and it went on to pick up the Panorama Audience Award at Berlin. Improvising from a personal familiarity with domestic workers, Casé and her fellow actors helped Muyleart -- who herself had a babá from age 7 -- chart the characters' shifting positions of dominance. The project came together at a moment when public policy towards domestic workers was looking up in Brazil. Ironically, though, the 2012 constitutional amendment granting those workers benefits such as health insurance has made it tougher for upper middle class citizens to employ them. If there's one thing the film's second mothers can all get their arms around, it's irony.

Photo Credits:

Photo 1: (L to R) Camila Márdila as Jéssica and Regina Casé as Val in "The Second Mother." Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Photo 2:Regina Casé as Val and Michel Joelsas as Fabinho in "The Second Mother." Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Photo 3: (L to R) Camila Márdila as Jéssica and Regina Casé as Val in "The Second Mother." Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Photo 4: Photo of "The Second Mother" writer/director Anna Muyleart courtesy of Anna Muyleart.