A few years ago, the Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and his occasional partner, Daniela Thomas, made a lovely, heartbreaking short film for the omnibus feature Paris, Je T’Aime. Running just a few minutes, it showed the typical day of a young immigrant (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who drops her own child off at a daycare center in the morning, then spends the rest of the day caring for someone else’s child. That cruel economic irony is at the heart of The Second Mother, from Brazil, which is more or less a feature-length, homegrown version of the same scenario. Sadly, it isn’t nearly as effective, mostly because writer-director Anna Muylaert has conceived it as a simplistic tale of dawning empowerment, featuring a heroine who’s easy to root for, but not complex enough to take seriously.
Her name is Val (Regina Casé), and she’s first seen speaking to her daughter on the phone while watching over a little boy named Fabinho, upon whom she clearly dotes. The movie then jumps ahead a dozen years or so, with Val still working as a live-in maid for the same wealthy family, as Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) prepares to apply to college. This cozy arrangement gets thrown into disarray by the arrival of Val’s own daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who’s also gearing up to take her entrance exams and has come to stay with her mother in São Paulo to facilitate the application process. Though she grew up poor, Jéssica has no use whatsoever for subservience, and zero tolerance for the condescension of rich people. She insists upon viewing herself as socially equivalent to her host family, which makes Val break out in hives.
That’s a fairly nifty means of exploring shifting mores regarding class distinctions, and The Second Mother is at its best when juxtaposing Jéssica’s inherent feeling of self-worth with Val’s deeply ingrained belief that she’s a second-class citizen whose only duty is to serve. Casé is well known in Brazil for comedy, and she has a lot of fun sputtering and hyperventilating as Jéssica, for example, deftly manipulates the family into letting her sleep in the plush guest bedroom, rather than on a spare mattress in Val’s room, as planned. What’s more, both mother and daughter are fully justified: The family really is—as Val insists—offering Jéssica things just to be polite, assuming that she’ll refuse… but they’re things the family should offer her. Val has internalized her lack of dignity for so long that she can’t even see how obnoxiously she’s treated.
Trouble is, she’s treated way too obnoxiously. Muylaert does well by Val and Jéssica, and she takes pains to show the tender bond that exists between Val and Fabinho, who does view his longtime combination maid/nanny as a second mother. (The film’s original Portuguese title, Que Horas Ela Volta?, translates as When Will She Be Back? The question is asked by Fabinho of his mother in the prologue, and repeated hypothetically by Jéssica about Val later on.) But the film makes Fabinho’s real mother, Bárbara (Karine Teles), so cartoonishly haughty that at one point Bárbara has the backyard pool drained simply because Jéssica was playfully pushed into the water. And Fabinho’s father, Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), doesn’t just hit on Jéssica, but actually asks her to run away with him, pretending that he was only joking when she expresses consternation rather than instantly agreeing. Consequently, there’s a rah-rah element to The Second Mother that undermines its sociological ambition, especially when Val suddenly, speedily gets her groove back in the closing minutes. The film spends nearly two hours saying what Salles and Thomas did in just a handful of minutes, and somehow manages to be comparatively reductive rather than expansive.