When is Mummy coming home?

by Lilla Puskás

Anna Muylaert’s latest feature,The Second Mother focuses largely on the social context of its setting, namely Brasil, where due to general unemployment problems many mothers have to move from the countryside to the big cities to work as au pairs at upper class family homes, thereby leaving their own children behind.

This is what happens to Val (Regina Casé) who moves to São Paolo and helps a wealthy couple to raise their only son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). The teenager feels more connected to his nanny than to his real parents, as their relationship is closer and far more caring. Jealousy and the inability for real communication are the main sources of the conflicts in the plot, as well as Val’s inner fear and anxiety as she feels like a second class citizen in the house.

The main quality of the movie lies in its depiction of the psychological process of self-opression, through the portrayal of Val’s character. Her place in the house is strictly limited to the kitchen and her tiny bedroom and also, within the family, she is very much forced to the periphery. It is never made clear in the movie how the hierarchy got built up throughout all these years; however, supposedly, it was Val who adapted herself to the rules too willingly and became too obedient, thus ending up as a slave. Muylaert’s movie reflects on important issues in contemporary Brazilian society, first of all the prohibitions which maintain the distance between wealthy and poor. Even though it raises serious issues, the movie keeps up a light-hearted tone. Muylaert creates a very pleasent atmosphere without understating the problems.

One of the very few plot twists comes when Val’s daugher Jéssica (Camila Márdila) appears out of the blue and establishes a claim to move to São Paolo, for the application exam to the Architecture and Urbanism College. Val invites her daugher to live with her in the house but it turns out to be a bad idea as the girl refuses to respect the rules of the house. Due to the teen girl’s stubborn character, her arrival unexpectedly ends up creating an overly awkward situation which is reminiscent of the plot of Pasolini’s Teorema (1968). Each family member develops an individual relationship with Jéssica, leading to essential changes in their personalities. The most significant of these is the change in Val, who finally comes to the understanding that she cannot live oppressed any longer.

Regina Casé, one of the most popular character actresses in Brasil, plays a rather clumsy but still very likeable character. Muylaert’s script contains many comical scenes and Casé fits these perfectly; however, sometimes she somewhat overacts. That said, the most memorable scenes are the solo episodes of Val, when she suddenly stays alone for a moment and enjoys being unseen.

The Second Mother highlights the long term consequences of social inequality and economic migrancy within families. Muylaert’s movie depicts a mother’s lack of faithfulness as a serious but forgivable sin. The movie opened at Sundance and was quickly awarded the Special Jury Price. After getting the Audience Award at Berlinale’s Panorama section, Muylaert also got awarded with the C.I.C.A.E. award as well, for her ability for real emphathy demonstrated throughout the movie.