A film about class and the female experience that won’t make you want to run for the hills: The Second Mother reviewed

Val the housekeeper, played by Regine Chase, is dynamite from the very first frame

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

The Second Mother

15, Key cities

The Second Mother is a Brazilian film concerning a wealthy family, their live-in housekeeper, and the arrival of the housekeeper’s daughter, who throws the household into upheaval. If pushed, I’d say it’s about class and the female experience but, before you run for the hills, you should know it is socio-economic warfare beautifully written and it is socioeconomic warfare exquisitely performed and it is socioeconomic warfare undertaken with humour and heart, and if you’re still not sold, more fool you.

The housekeeper — who is also nanny, maid, gardener and dog-walker — is Val, as played by Regine Chase, who is dynamite; who engages in the first frame and then simply carries on doing so. She is a wonderfully warm presence, and has one of those strong-featured, supremely characterful, sublime faces as rarely seen in cinema, now cinema is practically wall-to-wall Jennifer Lawrences. (A face probably not seen since Peggy Mount. Has there been anyone on screen like Peggy Mount? I miss Peggy Mount.)

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Val is employed by Barbara (Karine Teles), who is some kind of high-flying professional, and her husband, Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), a former painter who is listless and may be depressed, and they have a son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). He is around 16, and Val is the second mother, having raised him since he was a little boy, and having been present when Barbara was not. She offers him physical affection to the extent that, even now, when he requires comfort, he climbs into her bed so she can stroke his hair. I must confess that I did find this a little creepy, but maybe they do things differently in São Paulo?

Val does not question her position in life. Val is as happy as Larry. Val dishes up the family’s meals and indulges Fabinho with his favourite ice cream and performs all the chores. Her own sleeping quarters are cramped and minuscule, but she’s fine about that. She has it good, she believes. But then her daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila), who is the same age as Fabinho, comes to stay. Val, we are given to understand, comes from an impoverished rural background, and left Jessica in the care of others while sending money home.

Jessica is self-possessed and smart and questions it all. Jessica is meant to sleep on a mattress on the floor of Val’s cramped and minuscule room but talks herself into the guest bedroom. Jessica thinks nothing of helping herself to Fabinho’s ice cream (chocolate and almond), or jumping into the swimming pool, which Val has told her is absolutely forbidden. Val is horrified. It’s never crossed Val’s mind that her employers are anything other than on the side of right. Val chastises Jessica. You think you are better than everyone else, she says to her, disapprovingly. Jessica denies this is so. I just don’t think I’m worse than anyone else, she says. Both Jessica and Fabinho are trying to get into the same architecture school, and when it becomes apparent who is the stronger candidate, the social fabric begins to tear.

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Here, writer-director Anna Muylaert has crafted a compelling tale based around the elaborate dance as always performed between those who serve and those who are served, and more specifically in this instance, women who work for women who work. (I find this relationship so uncomfortable I’ve never been able to have a cleaner, just so you know.) The tension is never explosive, but quietly simmers, as Barbara, who has always thought of herself as kind and decent, feels increasingly threatened, and begins to dissemble; begins more openly to exhibit the disdain that has been there all along. (There’s a terrific early scene when Val gives her a birthday gift she obviously hates.) The narrative grip is strong. We don’t want Val to lose her job. We love Val, who wears every thought on that sublime face, and is capable of ace comic timing, but maybe she’s best off out of there? Maybe her loyalty has to be to Jessica?

There are many themes at play here — outsourced parenting is one — but it is all handled so naturalistically they are never obvious. Everything comes from character, so much so that even the contrivances — and the denouement is especially contrived — don’t jar as they otherwise might. Plus, if you apply the Bechdel Test, which I’m always boring on about, and which so many films fail, this would come up smelling of roses and everything else that is delicious. Obviously, you don’t have to see The Second Mother, but if you let it get away, it will be your loss.

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  • Tamerlane

    Una flicka chica. Certamente.

    • Sergio Correa de Siqueira

      Hullo, Mate. “Certamente” is good Portuguese, but “chica” is definitely Spanish. Here we say “garota”, “menina”, “moça” and some other things, but never “chica”. “Chica” in Brazil is the (rather rare these days) nickname for a girl named Francisca, and only that. And I haven´t seen a Francisca under 80 for a long time. And in Portuguese is “uma”, not “una”,

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  • SPW

    Val Val Val (15 in all). And faces again…. sigh.

  • Sergio Correa de Siqueira

    Nice article, and nice flick. But as a Brazilian, I can assure you that: any Val
    these days is a museum piece, and ought to be at least seventy and retired, or
    a loony.
    Not that they didn’t exist: I knew a few, and loved one as a surrogate grandmother, and another as a dear friend end older sister. But they are definitely a thing of the past, specially live-ins – nobody can afford them nowadays. If they want, they can skin you alive and charge you as they if they were “slave labour”, just because they sleep away from home. I knowsome quite rich people here, but only popstars can afford one.
    As for the Val type, I have a theory: contrary to what PC says, the Vals were a product of the late forties, 50s and 60s. (and up to the 70s.). Prior to that, people didn’t care much about servants, a heritage from the Colonial times. But in the late forties a new kind of people appeared: migrants from the rural exodus, whose
    first job in the Big City were as domestic servants. Proof? Few of the 20’s and
    30’s houses had servant’s quarters; working hours and conditions may have been
    harder, but servants were supposed to live elsewhere. Most servants quarters I
    knew were built in my childhood were built in the backyard, for a simple
    reason: they were a sort of late addenda to the house.
    Today, the Brazilian left tries to associate domestic servants with slavery; if that is
    true, it certainly didn’t fit what happened to me and my family. MY “ Vals”
    were all Europeans or of European descent; in fact, whiter than us (according
    to my DNA, I have 6% American Indian blood, of which I am quite proud but find
    rather useless: I can’t track an elephant in a snowfield). Almerinda, the cook,
    was the orphaned daughter of a man stuck by lighting when she was two; to her
    death at 89 she carried a neat scar in her back, shaped exactly as her father’s
    hand – a thing I found morbid, but interesting. Seu Antônio, the gardener, was
    a Portuguese convicted for first degree murder by my grandfather and later
    employed by him; he chopped his wife to pieces with a sickle. Godfather Antônio
    (a first generation Italian immigrant) was not a servant, but Grandpa’s
    designated bodyguard; as those were gentle days, he didn’t have much to do. “Seu”Alcides was retired, but worked for us as a driver now and then, for a few
    extra quid.
    Anyway, I would love to talk about each one of them, and of Cleusa too, but the space is scarce. Just believe me: Val’s breed is long dead (except Godfather Antônio: he managed to graduate in Law and is my fence neighbor
    in the farm, and a kind of surrogate father, now that Dad is gone, the same way
    as Almerinda was my spinster grandmother – and, believe me, that’s nothing
    quaint about a “cafuné”, the tender scratching of a dear one’s hair – on the
    contrary, it’s real nice and innocent (and clean nowadays, in Colonial times the
    purpose of the thing was to subtly kill lice).

    Oh, by the way: Godfather Antônio went to night school and became a lawyer. One of Cleusa’s sons is a computer wiz, the other a law student in a good University. So are Seu Alcides grandsons. No problem with that, rather
    on the contrary.

    • SchtenGraby


    • Eduardo

      Omg, I am brazilian as well and you’re full of bullshit. Please shut up. I’m embaressed.

      • Sergio Correa de Siqueira

        “I am brazilian”? Am I talking to a a Tupi Indian? And you are “embaressed”? I am embarrassed to have a countryman who writes like that.

        • Eduardo

          Kkkk Im crying because you think my english is bad. Vou nem dormir essa noite, viu. E a língua dos tupis é mais difícil que esse seu inglês, just saying.

        • Eduardo

          Btw, it’s “Are you ’embaressed?'”, not ” You are ’embaressed?'”. Espertão.

        • BrPpl

          Mr correct-great-english, indian is someone that was born in India. The usage you are trying to fetch is extremely démodé. I am shocked by how obtuse your view of the world is. Your bubble must actually be a dome.

    • BrPpl

      Mister, please do yourself a favour, open Netflix and watch a doc called “Domestica” (Housemaids). 7 teenagers shot their living-in housemaids and this is from 2012. Also, stretch your almighty fingers a bit, reach out for google and you will certainly find out that Brazil has around 7 millions housemaids. That’s not ancient history, it is of course, due to historical slavery reasons. Oh! That might have been what you wanted to convey. ha!

      • Sergio Correa de Siqueira

        I never said that there are no housemaids in Brazil. If I said that, I would be insane. My point is: the old “member-of-the-family”, auntie, godmother, etc. maid like Val is a thing of the past. And I also said that almost no housemaids today live or sleep where they work, which is completely different to say that they don´t exist. And, as they mostly have lives of their own outside their work, they don´t form strong bonds with their employers like in the old days.

        • BrPpl

          You have certainly not watched the doc I recommended. It goes against that exactly point: “Val’s breed is long dead”. You can watch seven families with the same kind of “breed”. Not ancient, it’s now-history. Mind you Brazil is a very big place and your experience might be a lot different if you move around your bubble.

  • Sergio Correa de Siqueira

    I’m afraid my (hi)story has so many gaps as to appear almost incomprehensible. But space is carve

  • Annette

    “women who work for women who work.”

    They’re also working for the men who work. It isn’t the woman’s responsibility to do the housework, it’s his too. I never notice men getting hung up about hiring women to do their cleaning.

    • Men don’t care about toilets. It’s a horrible fact of life and I use whatever I can in my favour, but the fact is that most men (except my dad) are chimps in the lavatory. Shaming doesn’t work, nor does praise. They are worse than dogs, who at least seek to soil a place OUTSIDE the den.