|Camila Márdila and Regina Casé in The Second Mother, directed by Anna Muylaert.|
The Brazilian film The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?), about how the relationship of a long-time live-in domestic and her employers changes when her college-age daughter comes to live with her, is a quiet and unobtrusive piece of pure naturalism. The writer-director, Anna Muylaert, barely seems to impose a style of her own on the material, an unconventional comedy of manners, but the quality of her observations is uncannily shrewd, and the movie’s treatment of the subjects of class and family is trenchant. The setting is São Paulo, where Val (Regina Casé) has worked for thirteen years as housekeeper for a high-powered socialite, Bárbara (Karine Teles), and her retiring artist husband Carlos (Laurenço Mutarelli) and nanny for their son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). Val is devoted to the family – especially to Fabinho, who is around eighteen but still likes to be treated (by Val, if by no one else) like a little boy, coddled and cradled in her arms; he sometimes steals into her bedroom at night to sleep there. (She protects him, sometimes even from his parents: when his mother finds his stash of weed and voices her concern that he’s getting high too often, he denies it’s his, so Bárbara tosses it in the garbage. Val retrieves it and returns it to Fabinho on the sly.) Bárbara pays Val well, and she’s convinced that she and Carlos treat her like one of the family, and Val likes to think so too. But we can see the limits of her sensitivity: when Val gives her a coffee set for her birthday, Bárbara makes a show about saving it for a special occasion, but when Val tries to incorporate it into her employer’s birthday party, Bárbara gets annoyed. This is a remarkably layered episode – we note Val’s generosity in using her money to buy a gift for her and the implication that she thinks of Bárbara as more than just her boss, but when she takes Bárbara at her word she’s clearly crossing an invisible social line. Usually Val doesn’t make this kind of mistake: she treats both her employers with grateful deference. And Muylaert refuses to score easy points against them. When Val’s daughter Jéssica (Camilla Márdila) shows up in São Paulo to take her college entrance exams and asks if she can stay with her, at least until she gets settled, Bárbara agrees without hesitation, though she comes to regret it almost immediately.