Wednesday, September 9, 2015

New movie review: The Second Mother

Regina Case and Camila Mardila star in the excellent Brazilian drama The Second Mother.

We are not born with much, just a few basic survival instincts to get us safely from one moment to the next. The rest pretty much has to be picked up along the way. Sure, we come into this world with the capacity to learn, but the education is up to family, friends, teachers, experience, and to a greater-than-reasonable extent, television and the Internet. Who sits at what lunch table, what jobs we do, and who our friends can be – we figure these things out, but we certainly are not born knowing.

Class difference is so culturally ingrained, though, it feels like something determined at birth. Make no mistake. The social standing of a child’s parents will go a long way toward predicting the child’s future outcomes, but it is not the only factor, which is why we spend so much time talking about upward mobility. In this country, we ethnocentrically call it the American Dream, but it is really a human dream. All good parents want their children to do better and have more, but first, the parents must recognize that more is possible.

In the excellent new Brazilian drama The Second Mother, writer-director Anna Muylaert and star Regina Casé, who also worked on the script, introduce us to a world in which social stratification is simply a way of life. Casé plays Val, a live-in maid and nanny employed for more than a decade by a wealthy São Paulo family. Val is a part of every aspect of the family’s life, including serving as the primary caregiver for the son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas).

Case and Michel Joelsas in The Second Mother.
She cooks meals, clears the table, vacuums the home, works in the yard, does the laundry, and cares for Fabinho as she would her own child. In the middle of the night, when he cannot sleep, he goes to Val rather than his parents. Val, however, has no delusions about her place, and in an early exchange with the woman of the house, Barbara (Karine Teles), she is told pointedly: “You are almost like family.” Notice the two layers of remove. Not only is Val not family, but she is not quite like family either.

Their world is a stagnant pond, and into the water, both literally and figuratively, jumps Jéssica (Camila Márdila), Val’s long-estranged daughter. Jéssica was left behind to be raised by her grandmother as Val went to São Paulo to earn money to provide for her daughter, a scenario that will sound all too familiar to millions of immigrants in the U.S. and the world over. Jéssica asks to stay with her mother, and by extension with her mother’s employers, while she prepares for her university entrance exam. Her arrival throws everyone’s life into chaos.

The screenplay creates an interesting parallel between Val and Barbara, who have both allowed other women to raise their children. Yet where Val acted out of necessity, Barbara decided to step aside, and when her son goes to Val for comfort instead of her, she must deal with the ramifications of her choice. In this way, Barbara, who could be a cardboard villain, is given depth, and the audience is left to interpret the emotional toll her decision has taken.

Ideas of motherhood and parent-child relationships are important to the film, but its central theme revolves around class. Val and her employers embrace the structure of their lives, but Jéssica cannot. She was neither born into this nor raised this way. She refuses to subjugate herself, and when her mother accuses her of acting superior to everyone, she demurs. She does not think of herself as better than anyone, she says, but she also does not think she is worse.

The performances all around are stellar, but Casé and Márdila are particularly stunning. Casé is a veteran with four decades of stage and screen work to her credit, and in Val, she crafts a nuanced portrait of a woman who is terrified that the structure she has devoted her life to is crumbling. In contrast, this is just Márdila’s second feature film, but she brings a perfect mix of naïveté and anger to the portrayal of a young woman who resents her mother for leaving her but may be more embittered by what her mother left her for – a class structure that makes little sense.

Mardila in The Second Mother.
The family patriarch Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) does not help matters when he develops a crush on Jéssica and invites her to his shed to look at his artwork and share a bowl of his son’s ice cream. Both Val and Barbara, in their own ways, are appalled by these displays of familiarity, and everything comes to a head when Fabinho and his friend playfully pull Jéssica into the family pool.

When she breaks the surface of the water, an invisible barrier is being broken. Muylaert chooses to emphasize this moment by shifting into slow motion, an intriguing directorial flourish in an otherwise austere drama. We are meant to understand nothing can be the same after this.

It is significant that Fabinho is the one to bring Jéssica into the pool as it implies class differences may be more illusory for younger generations. Later, when Jéssica sarcastically asks her mother if there is some kind of handbook with all these rules, Val says, “Nobody has to explain that. You’re born knowing what you can and cannot do.” As much as it might comfort Val to believe the system she adheres to is innate, Fabinho and Jéssica’s actions argue otherwise.

Val struggles to force her daughter to conform to her world because it is all she knows. The university-bound Jéssica is beyond this, though, as she sees what her mother has and already knows a different, better life is possible. It is up to Val to realize it is possible for her as well. To do so, she must first accept that she was not born this way. Nobody is.

See it? Yes.

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