November 30, 2015

Class conflicts get human face in warm, funny Brazilian film

Alison Gillmor / Winnipeg Free Press

This wry and warm Brazilian take on the upstairs-downstairs divide (in Portuguese, with subtitles) centres on the meaning of motherhood, formed by love but also shaped by economic and social pressures.

Housekeeper Val (Regina Casé) raises a wealthy family’s child in present-day Sao Paulo. Meanwhile, she has left her own child behind in Brazil’s northeast, regularly sending money but rarely seeing her.

Val lives in the cool modernist house of a cosmopolitan couple. Barbara (Karine Teles) is a brittle television presenter and Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli) a melancholy middle-aged hipster. Being modern and liberal, they like to preserve the myth that Val is “like family.” She certainly is to their son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), who prefers basking in Val’s unconditional affection to navigating his mother’s complex expectations.

Barbara and Carlos, on the other hand, are kind to Val when it’s convenient but also casually cruel without even thinking about it. For her part, Val is self-effacing and deferential — she has eaten standing up in the kitchen for 13 years — but occasionally gets her own back, muttering and making comic faces behind the dining room door.

The household’s tricky balance of power and intimacy, its unspoken assumptions about class and culture, are busted wide open by the arrival of Val’s now-grown daughter, Jessica (Camila M°rdila), who comes to Sao Paulo intent on studying architecture.

Assertive, confident and raised on the Internet, Jessica has no patience for the status quo. Lonely Carlos finds this charming, but Val is panicked, as is Barbara, for different reasons. Barbara is also dismayed that Jessica is taking the entrance exam for the same university as her son, especially because Jessica is clearly driven and focused while pampered Fabinho is sweetly feckless and often stoned.

Val’s joy at seeing her child soon turns to mortification at Jessica’s refusal to conform to the household’s unwritten boundaries. In one painful sequence, Val clucks over Fabinho at his breakfast, chucking his cheeks and ruffling his hair, but denies Jessica a place at the same table.

Recently named Brazil’s Oscar entry in the best foreign film category, The Second Mother quietly traces a tangle of sexual, familial and class crosscurrents. Brash Jessica clearly suggests the possibilities of a new Brazil, a country that has recently seen unprecedented bursts of economic prosperity and social mobility. But filmmaker Anna Muylaert (The Year My Parents Went on Vacation) never reduces her characters to political symbols. This particular revolution plays as gentle, generous human comedy, the mundane battlegrounds including the backyard swimming pool, an espresso set and a tub of fancy ice cream.

At the centre of all this emotional and socioeconomic tumult stands the earthy, funny Casé, a Brazilian superstar who started in avant-garde theatre before becoming a soap-opera favourite and beloved TV presenter. Embodying Val’s complicated, conflicted experience of mothering, Casé’s performance is hilarious, heart-tearing and ultimately hopeful.