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A Gem from Brazil: The Second Mother

Regina Casé-Michel Joelsas-Second MotherWhen a movie captivates you within seconds, you know you’re
watching something special. The opening of The
Second Mother—
a simple scene of a housekeeper taking care of a young boy
after he’s had a swim, while juggling a phone call to her own daughter—encapsulates
everything the movie is about. It’s honest, observant, and unaffected, and writer-director
Anna Muylaert never falters from that moment on. No wonder this Brazilian
import won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for its two
leading actresses.

Regina Casé plays a self-effacing woman named Val who has
devoted herself to a prosperous family in Sao Paolo as their housekeeper and
nanny—while her own daughter has been raised (on her earnings) by her ex-husband
and his second wife in her home town, far away. Val has pampered and doted on
the family’s little boy, who even now, as a teenager, is much closer to her than
he is to his own mother.

Regina Casé-Camila Márdila-680

Suddenly, Val hears from her daughter—whom she hasn’t seen
in ten years—because the girl wants to come to Sao Paolo to study at a
prestigious university. Her employers think of Val as family and have no
quarrel with young Jessica (Camila Márdila) coming to live with her mother
while they look for an apartment of their own. But the minute the brashly
confident young woman arrives, the household dynamic is thrown out of whack.

The Second Mother
is universally relatable, but to her great credit, Muylaert takes her story in
unusual directions, one of them bordering on the surreal. Characters reveal
colors and facets of themselves we don’t discern at first. But the anchor of
all this activity, and emotional tumult, is Val, a woman who has willingly
sacrificed everything of her own—until her estranged daughter forces her to
re-examine her life, and ponder her future.

Originally titled Que
Horas Ela Volta (What Time Does She Return?),
The Second Mother bears a superficial resemblance to Sebastian
Silva’s terrific 2009 Chilean feature The
Maid (La Nana)
but charts its own course with striking production design, a
provocative screenplay, and most of all the commanding, genuine, and often
hilarious performance of its leading lady. Brazil is submitting this film as
its candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and rightly so. It’s a
gem.

The Second Mother
opens today…

 

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