It's been a while - a very long while - since I felt so thoroughly uncomfortable in a movie theatre. It was The Second Mother's spot-on depiction of casual workplace condescension and small daily humiliations did it for me: the way that the well-off São Paulo bourgeois family treats its live-in housekeeper as both heirloom and invisible, a merely utilitarian object of service. It's perfectly captured by the unjudgmental yet entomological camera of writer/director Anna Muylaert, its almost clinical group set-ups showing how the space of the house is perfectly divided between "front" and "back", "upstairs" and "downstairs".
This is a film that means to render the invisible visible and recognisable, by focussing on the subterranean power relations within the four walls of the house; money is not really the issue, being in charge is. And Ms. Muylaert makes very clear who the real heart and soul of this household is: Val (Regina Casé), the housekeeper who's been running everything for nigh on 20 years, who has actually pretty much raised the family son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) since the mother was away working most of the time. In so doing, Val has neglected her own daughter she left behind in the provinces, to the point they don't talk much or keep up.
But it's that daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), who is the element that will disturb the precarious balance of the household: she has come to São Paulo to take her college entrance exam and reluctantly stays with her mother for a few days. Her presence quietly upends the established power rankings: Jessica is ashamed Val allows herself to be demeaned like she is, seeing very quickly through her status as overworked slave disregarded by all around as a mere convenience, and is unapologetic about being her own woman.
Ms. Casé's nuanced performance is contrapuntal to the broader strokes of the ensemble cast, since the film is about her character arc, about making Val realize her situation and the power she herself can have if she so wishes, pushing her out of the comfort zone. And the house is depicted as a seething battleground owned exclusively by the women: the men are ineffective and ineffectual, ceding the power either to the housekeeper who keeps everything running like clockwork but has effectively no life of her own, or to the cluelessly condescending mistress Bárbara (Karine Teles) who seems to live in a fantasy world entirely unrelated to reality.
Ms. Muylaert's writing and direction pull no punches in making the power relationships clearly felt: there's occasionally a sense that Val is merely a faithful dog eagerly lapping at its owners' distracted petting. But the film is not just about the relationship between Val and the family she works for, it is also about Val and Jessica, and about how their own connection as mother and daughter mirrors and echoes that of Bárbara and Fabinho. Both mothers effectively relinquished the education of their children, delegated it to someone else, with different results - when Fabinho hears his low exam marks, it's with Val that he commiserates and not with his own mother, bringing to the surface the resentment that has been boiling all over the film but without ever denouncing nor excusing any of the characters' behaviours.
There's a sense that The Second Mother is a sort of "X-ray" of a complicated social situation that offers no true solution to the problem, even if within its narrative logic the film ends on a reasonably "happy" note, which is also where the beautifully modulated, clinical approach of the film loses some traction and becomes a bit too conventional for its own good. Yet, you can find genuine intelligence and compassion in Ms. Muylaert's fourth feature, and that alone is well worth the admission.
QUE HORAS ELA VOLTA?
Brazil, 2014, 112 minutes
Starring Regina Casé, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenço Mutarelli, Michel Joelsas, Helena Albergaria
Directed and written by Anna Muylaert; cinematographer Barbara Álvarez (widescreen); music by Fábio Trummer and Vítor Araújo; art directors Marcos Pedroso and Thales Junqueira; costume designers André Simonetti and Cláudia Kopke; film editor Karen Harley; produced by Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane, Débora Ivanov and Ms. Muylaert, for Gullane Produções in association with África Filmes, in co-production with Globo Filmes
Screened November 25th 2015, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon