Stephen Ashton / Desert Sun
Val is a live-in housekeeper in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a well off family. Barbara (Karine Teles), the lady of the house, is a social butterfly and ‘style setter.’ Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) is a trust funder who once aspired to be an artist, and Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), the teenage son, is not particularly motivated and may not pass his exams to get into the school of his choice. Val took the job years ago so she could send money home to care for her own daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who was left with relatives.
Fabinho seeks comfort in the arms of the woman who raised him: not his mother, but Val (played by legendary Regina Casé), who still lets the teenager sleep in her bed when he is distressed.
Val suddenly hears from her daughter, Jéssica, who wants to come to the city to take her exams for architectural school, and will stay with the mother she has not spoken with for years. When Jéssica arrives, she takes her liberties refusing to acknowledge the boundaries of servant and master that bind her mother.
“The Second Mother” (“Que horas ela volta?”), director Anna Muylaert’s fourth film, says a lot about parenting as well as class and the oppression of self limitations in today’s Brazil.
“I started to do this film when I become a mother and refused to get a nanny,” the director says in an exclusive interview with The Desert Sun. “I wanted to do the job myself, but in my social position I was expected to find myself a nanny. I considered motherhood to be sacred, although my culture considered it to be lower-class work. So I started to think about it, and when I decided to pick the nanny as the main character, all these social class impositions and limitations came into being.”
Muylaert started writing “The Second Mother” 20 years ago, and wanted it to be her first feature. But funding was not able to be raised for it, and she went into production on “Durval Discos” and then made “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” also starring Brazilian super-star Regina Casé. Muylaert wrote screenplays and made her third feature “Collect Call,” then came back to “The Second Mother” and reworked it.
In the ensuing two decades Brazil went through dramatic social changes, and so did Muylaert’s characters. Jéssica, the daughter, in particular, transformed.
“In the very beginning, Jéssica was a small kid and Val was the strong one,” Muylaert says. “As years passed, Jéssica grew but then she became the ‘daughter of the maid’ cliché. Just six months before we started shooting Jéssica took her final form.” Now, Jéssica is the most mature and courageous of all the characters.
Fabinho, the son, is more attached to Val, the maid, than he is to his own mother; and Val is more attached to Fabinho than she is to her own daughter. This makes for a very powerful dynamic.
“I wanted to talk about this ‘dance of the chairs’: nobody is being taken care by the right mom,” Muylaert says. “It has to do with the Brazilian title, ‘Que horas ela volta?’ ( when does she return?) I wanted to talk about the work of motherhood which is so important, but not really well valued.”
The acting in “The Second Mother” is superb and Muylaert has a special way of working with actors. “I do a lot of rehearsals and exercises and games with the actors and actresses to try to develop the characters, to get them in our hands,” she says. “By the time we shoot I tell them to fly, to go further, to reinvent the scenes – always respecting the function of the scene, but I dare them to go further. I like to be surprised on the set.”
Val doesn’t feel it is right for her to sit at the family table, yet Jéssica just DOES it. What does this say about generation differences in Brazil today? “The new generation is starting to respect themselves more. They are having a little more access to education.”
Val and the other characters are symbolic of the social conditions in Brazil today, Muylaert says. “Each person is a different player in the same game. Even the architecture of the house, and its many walls and doors, is symbolic,” the director adds.
Is there a parallel of the Brazilian film industry and women directors? Is it still hard to get ‘a place at the table?’ “Sexism exists in all areas. At this moment, I think that women already have the right to work, but not always does she get credit. Or, in other words, she has the right to cook for those who will indeed get a place on the table.”
Muylaert, also a scriptwriter, co-wrote “”The Year My Parents Went on Vacation,” and was a writer of the well received film “Xingu.” “Xingu had a deep impact on me at the time I was working, and still does. I still feel very connected to the people, their history and the whole culture of Xingu’s people,” Muylaert says. She made a point of showing her recent film “The Second Mother” to them in the jungle. Many asked after the film: ‘Why does this house have so many walls?’” After “The Second Mother,” perhaps there will be fewer walls in the houses of Brazil.