Catherine Ellsberg ’16Staff Writer
Though Anna Muylaert’s “The Second Mother,” Brazil’s official entry for the Oscars, oscillates between ironic moments and subtlety, its point remains sharp and clear throughout. The film is a searing attack on class inequity and ingrained hierarchies. While “The Second Mother” unfolds in São Paolo, its plot, which focuses on the travails of a maid living amid the excess of the elite, seems equally pertinent here in the States.
Actress Regina Casé throws herself into the role of Val, a maid working for celebrated TV personality Barbara (Karine Teles) and the unemployed “Doctor” Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli). As Muylaert directs it, we understand the dynamic of injustice from the very first scene of the film, where we see that Val is so much more than a housekeeper. She is, as the title suggests, in all but name the mother of her employers’ son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). She has raised and cared for him all his life. Living in a tiny backroom of the beautiful spacious house, Val seems content to wait on Barbara and Carlos. And yet, as Val scurries around in obeisance, a hint of tragedy seeps in from the corners. The great irony, of course, is that Val doesn’t recognize that she is treated as a mere servant. Or does she?
In what I found to be the most incendiary scene, Val gives an espresso set, replete with black and white cups and a tray, to “Doña” Barbara for her birthday (as we come to learn, the honorific “Doña” is a necessary ingredient to keep the illusion of power intact). The perfectly coiffed Barbara mechanically thanks Val, telling her to save the set for a special occasion.
Later that night, at Barbara’s birthday dinner, we watch in complete shock as the employer chastises Val for putting the espresso set on display. “But you said for a special occasion!” Val murmurs before fetching a fancier set.
Even Muylaert’s manner of filming this humiliating scene is telling, as she keeps the audience waiting in the kitchen, while the party goes on beyond our reach. Muylaert processes this experience of separation by visually clueing us to Val’s inferior status, filming the character listening in on her employers’ conversations or always standing in the doorway, unable to enter the room.
The film takes a dramatic turn with the arrival of Val’s daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), who comes to stay with Val at Barbara’s home while preparing for university entrance exams. Jessica immediately voices the outrage of the audience as she observes her mother being treated with barely civil indifference. Little acts of defiance become magnified within the house’s politics of rules and social laws; Val is horrified when Jessica sits down to eat at the family’s breakfast table, and later when she takes a swim in the pool with Fabinho. “You think you’re better than everyone else,” she complains to her seemingly clueless and naïve daughter.
When Jessica replies, “I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I just don’t think I’m any worse,” she, in essence, captures the tension straining the whole of “The Second Mother.” Though Muylaert ultimately ends the film on a happier note, the release arrives only after two hours of barely veiled prejudice and moments of quiet humiliation.