The Second Mother

By Gustavo Abreu

Originally published September 2015

Regina Case in “Que horas ela volta?”

“The country is changing, right?” says the mother of a wealthy São Paulo family, when she learns that her maid’s daughter wants to become an architect and is applying for college. She sounds surprised and slightly resentful.

It’s a fleeting piece of dialogue which can go unnoticed but it emphasises the movie’s unmasking of upper class dissatisfaction with the rise of the lower in Brasil, especially when they are put as equals.

The problem is that her son is also applying for the same college and in competition for a similar opening. But what happens when the poor “steal” what belongs to the rich?

“The Second Mother” is being advertised as a drama about the emotional relationship between a nanny and the family she works for. The English title itself suggests that (in Portuguese the film is called “What Time Will She Come Back?”).

But the movie is far from being about that. Director Anna Muylaert’s new feature is about the new social mobility that Brasil is experiencing in the post-Lula era. And in the year of the “panelaços” (a wave of protests against president Dilma Rousseff during which the rich open their windows and clang pots and pans), it is film that every Brazilian should see.

In order to show that, Muylaert brings the camera to the kitchen. That room is the whole universe of her protagonist Val, played by the talented Regina Casé, a well-known Brazilian actress and TV host, in her best role.

Val “belongs to the family” for years now. She raised Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), the son of her employers, and now works for them as a maid. Her days go down the drain between the stove, the sink, a vacuum cleaner, dog turds, and a tiny warm room in the back of the house where she sleeps.

Val is not just Fabinho’s nanny. She’s also in charge of her boss Barbara’s (Karine Teles) detox juices and takes care of Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), the man of the house, a failed painter that lives in a deep depression. The story is set in the well-off neighbourhood of Morumbi, with its giant walls and streets which are uninhabited but for SUVs.

Barbara is a busy fashionista who does not have time for her family and Carlos is always locked in his room. So Fabinho clings to his nanny and they forge a mother-son like bond. Whenever he can’t sleep, he crawls to Val’s bed, even in that tiny stuffy room, so he can get some affection.

Apart from a weekly night out for a drink with her maid friends, Val dedicates her whole life to her employers. She engages in Barbara’s social events and even gives her presents. But she has her limits. The fancy ice cream, for example, only Fabinho gets to eat. The swimming pool is completely off limits. And her presence in the dining room, during dinner, is out of question — she can only walk in if she’s asked to.

Until one day when her phone rings. On the other side of the line is her teenage daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila), who’s the same age as Fabinho, calling from Pernambuco, a state 1500 miles from São Paulo on the northeastern coast of Brasil. She wants to know if she can stay with her mother for a week, because she’s applying for university and the examination is in São Paulo.

Val’s employers agree, so Jessica arrives to the big city to stay with her mom. She’s got a mattress laid for her on her mom’s tiny maid’s room, but she questions why couldn’t she stay in the large airy guest room, where there’s even a desk for her to study. Val thinks it’s absurd, but Carlos agrees.

Little by little, Jessica enters the life of this family and finds out about her mother’s reality, as they haven’t seen each other since she was a small child. Jessica likes to read, she’s a straight-A student, and is full of questions about the relationship between Val and her employers, things that her own mother would never even begin to think about. That leads to a series of conflicts that gives the film its distressing tone.

Social abyss

Muylaert, one of the most talented filmmakers in Brasil and a true specialist when it comes to writing for younger audiences, conceived “The Second Mother” more than twenty years ago.

It all started when she had to hire a nanny to take care of her children while she was out working. At first it was a story about outsourcing maternity, an often common practice in Brasil, especially in the middle to higher classes, but halfway through the screenplay a lot happened.

“Brasil has changed and the movie had to be updated”, she told me a couple of weeks before the film was released in Brasil and six months after its first screening at Sundance Festival.

On her first couple of drafts, Muylaert struggled to give the characters of Val and Jessica a well deserving end without being too negative, but at the same time not being cliche. “I didn’t want Jessica to marry a rich guy or to become a famous samba singer. Six months before we started shooting, Jessica would come to São Paulo to become a hairdresser, but she ended up failing, so she’d become a nanny, like her mother.”

Muylaert had that question stuck in her head for five years, a period in which she did workshops, met a bunch of people in Jessica’s situation and witnessed the success of “Neighbouring Sounds”, another Brazilian film about social inequality.

Also during that time, the Senate approved a new constitutional amendment, the “PEC das domésticas”, that guarantees all domestic employees in the country are entitled to benefits such as paid overtime and jobseeker’s allowance, amongst others.

“I was thinking of storytelling, but of course trying to translate the changes that are happening to the country. It’s a movie about today”, says Muylaert.

Feel-good movie

When “The Second Mother” was shown at Berlinale, in February this year, it received a six minute standing ovation. It got rave reviews from outlets such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire.

To Muylaert, the response to her latest work on the international scene has a lot to do with the European mentality. “In a First World country, the idea of citizenship is something that everybody already has. But not here, [in Brasil] there still is a separatist mentality.”

According to the filmmaker, the fact that the movie was distributed in Europe and in the US, even before its release in Brasil, was of course a surprise but there was a reason behind that. “In Europe they decided to put it out during the summer because they understand it as a ‘feel-good movie’. Because they are unhappy”, she analyzes. “To them it’s an anthem of respect to freedom, but they’re used to it, they believe it. But here [in Brasil] it’s different. Here it causes tension.”

Besides Berlinale, “The Second Mother” was shown at Sundance, where Casé won best leading actress, and had a great run at festivals such as New Zealand International Film Festival, Sarajevo Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival and Chicago Critics Film Festival, to name a few.

Some already consider it a frontrunner for best foreign language film at the 2016 Academy Awards, next to Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan”, from France. The last time Brasil figured in that category was in 1999 with Walter Salles’ “Central Station” — not even Fernando Meirelle’s “City of God” was recognised in 2003.

Muylaert found the answer to that buzzing question when she realized all she wanted was to give Jessica some hope. “She enters the story as a citizen, she wants to be an architect. I just wanted citizenship, I wanted visibility.”

Considering that Salles’ movie showed the world a poor, illiterate and hopeless country, it’s only fair that in 2015 it will see a much more prosperous (though still poor and corrupt) one.