Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Second Mother: Discovery

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.

Regina Casé and Michel Joelsas in The Second Mother.
On the other hand, the reason Val and Jéssica haven’t seen each other for years is that, in order to take care of Fabinho, Val sent her own daughter to be raised by relatives in Pernambuco, in another part of Brazil. This breached familial situation is so archaic you feel you must be in another century, and Jéssica resents the way she’s been thrust aside for almost her entire childhood and adolescence. She arrives with a chip on her shoulder and the expectation that she deserves to be treated as a guest, not kept out of the way as a servant’s daughter. Muylaert mines comedy out of the tension between the subservient code of conduct to which Val expects Jéssica to adhere and Jéssica’s refusal to kowtow to what she considers fatuous, demeaning rules, like which ice cream she can help herself to (the fancier kind, Val insists, belongs to Fabinho) and where she can sleep (Val’s room is crowded for two, so Jéssica declares that she should be able to use the unoccupied guest room). Her boldness embarrasses Val, though Bárbara is too conscious of the way she wants to come across – modern, liberal – to object at first, and the male members of the household complicate matters by being inclusive. That’s because both find her sexually desirable: she activates a sort of mid-life crisis for Carlos, and Fabinho is dying to lose his virginity, though he’s too shy to do anything beyond asking Jéssica about her sexual experience. (She’s so obviously more advanced than he is in this regard that it’s hard to believe they’re the same age; when he wants to know if she’s a virgin, she laughs at him and asks him what he thinks.)

“Where do you learn these things?” Jéssica asks her mother when, for the tenth or twelfth time, Val tries to explain that the daughter of a domestic doesn’t presume, and Val answers, “You’re born knowing them.” Jéssica’s joining the household turns out to be a disaster but it also sharpens Val’s perspective on her role in the family and, in the end, reroutes a life she’s trained herself not to think about too closely. This lovely, entirely surprising little picture is performed impeccably by the whole ensemble, but it rests pretty squarely on Regina Casé’s shoulders. I’ve never seen Casé before, but she has an ebullient personality and unmistakable star presence, and in fact in Brazil she’s had a distinguished career on stage and TV and in the movies. Her work here is in an expansive, vaudevillian spirit – a little Barbra Streisand, a little Shirley Booth. But it’s also firmly in character: it’s Val, not the actress, who falls back on humor when she’s embarrassed or horrified and devises little routines that comment on the awkwardness of her own situation. The poignancy in Casé’s portrayal is always indirect; it ricochets off the comedy. Val Muylaert’s film gives you a lot to thankful for, not the least of which is an introduction to one of Brazil’s most gifted performers.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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