The Second Mother

This Brazilian gem is just lovely. Everyone’s got maids in Brazil. You don’t even have to be particularly wealthy or posh. It’s just, you know, a thing, where the maid lives in and works around the house and sort of brings up the kids like they were her own.

But it’s also an unspoken thing. People don’t care to go too deep on the subject. Fernando Mereilles, who made City of God, previously made a film called Maids that looked at this societal situation and it was considered a bit risky. But every Brazilian director you speak to was raised by a maid (Fernando, Walter Salles, whoever – it’s just how it is.)

But now here comes The Second Mother (When Is She Coming Home? is a more literal translation of the Portuguese title), about a maid, Val (the wonderful Regina Case)  who lives with a reasonably well-off Sao Paolo family in the suburb of Morumbi.

Her daughter, Jessica, arrives from the provinces (the north-east is what they say, but from the clues in the film, it could be anywhere from Recife to Natal or Fortaleza) to study for an entrance exam to a prestigious architecture school. Does the daughter of a maid have the right, the brains, the moxy to even think about getting into such a top school?

This subtle twist in the system upsets the household. Jessica (Camilla Mardilla) doesn’t want to squeeze into her long-absent mother’s bedroom but would rather stay in the chi-chi guest room. The father of the house is up for it, as is the son Fabinho, who is cosseted by Val far more than by his haughty media-starlet Mum, Val’s boss – as she never ceases to remind us.

Jessica’s arrival overturns everything, very quietly but quickly. She questions her own mother’s sacrifice having left her own family behind in the countryside and her mentality in suffering the orders of the family, and the boundaries – what cutlery to use, which door to stay behind, which ice cream to eat from the fridge.

Directed by Anna Muylaert in collaboration with Case (they co-wrote the script) gives us a marvellous insight into the fragilities of a society’s thin lines, the unmentioned borders and behaviours. But  more than anything, the film’s heart beat to Case’s lovely performance, which beats with that of a mother torn between regret and rectitude, and suddenly presented with a chance to change it all.

It’s a film of hope, defiance and challenge. There’s smart use of the city’s architecture and unreadable gradations. Simply: a delight.