A Gem from Brazil: ‘The Second Mother’

When 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.


Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024