Huma Munshi is touched by The Second Mother, Brazilian director Anna Muylaert’s film about a domestic worker that questions rigid social hierarchies as well as obvious familial arrangements
I have to start by declaring an interest. I haven’t had a relationship with my own mother for over ten years; we’ve been estranged in pretty horrific circumstances. For this reason The Second Mother had a powerful resonance for me.
The Second Mother is a captivating and engaging film artfully directed by Anna Muylaert. It stars the charismatic Camila Márdila as Jessica, the ambitious and beautiful daughter, and Regina Casé as Val (the mother).
Jessica arrives in Sao Paulo to take an exam at a prestigious university to study architecture and has to stay with her mother for the duration of her visit. Val left her daughter as a young child with relatives to look for work to support her after separating from Jessica’s father. As a result, they have only seen each other intermittently and their relationship is very strained. Val repeatedly mentions the sacrifice she made leaving her daughter for work. It is a common story, where poverty is rife and where there aren’t enough opportunities to access good jobs. Unbeknownst to Jessica, Val lives with the family she cleans for in a small stuffy room crammed with goods she hopes to use when she sets up her own home one day.
Before Jessica’s arrival Val is relatively happy. She observes the unwritten rules of being a cleaner; not sitting with the family when they eat, serving them, staying on site in a smaller room, waking early to feed the family before they go to work. Val adheres to this code unquestioningly; indeed, she thinks the family are good to her. Val repeats several times that Barbara (Karine Teles), her employer, has paid for the mattress that Jessica is expected to sleep on.
Jessica brings a fresh and at times brutal perspective on Val’s life. Unlike her mother – and because of her financial support- she has had a financial cushion that shielded her from being seriously affected by many of the social hierarchies that her mother experiences. She cannot stomach her mother’s subservience. She is very much an employee to them and her daughter shines a painful light on her position. There is a deliciously provocative scene where Barbara is forced to give Jessica her breakfast as Val has overslept. The role reversal is beautiful to watch, not least because of Barbara’s evident discomfort.
There is an ongoing conflict about this enforced hierarchy between the two female leads. Most vividly this is shown when the Jessica is in the family pool, playing with the employer’s sons. Val and Barbara are aghast: for both there is a clear breach of what is acceptable between the cleaner’s daughter and the employer. Her mother pulls her out in desperation and Barbara has the pool drained because she has “seen a rat”. Jessica recognises immediately who is the perceived “rat”.
For those of us who are children of immigrant parents, there is probably much that resonates; in particular, the work our parents do to survive. We judge them because they do not question the inequalities; indeed we, through Jessica’s eyes, see this as unjust and unreasonable, perhaps not always recognising the economic necessity that drives such choices.
Having two women exploring these issues on screen makes for a powerful dynamic. The men in the film are peripheral and there to help as plot devices. What a change! This film very much passes The Bechdel Test and what a joy that is to behold.
As well as questioning the rigid class structures, Jessica allows the audience to explore the nature of motherhood and what it means to be an effective parent. She questions her mother’s prolonged absence in her life. Unable to accept Val’s reasons or the idea that she has made significant sacrifices, Jessica only sees her own emotional pain. There is a tremendous amount of anger and resentment directed towards her mother for her abandonment.
Interestingly, despite this, we find out that she may be repeating this pattern herself, driven by the need for economic and intellectual fulfilment. At some point it is revealed that Jessica has also left a child behind to take the entrance exams and potentially, to study away from her son. She sacrifices the relationship with him for the prestige of the university and, just like in her own past, someone else cares for her son whilst she provides financial support.
Both Val and Jessica are on a journey trying to come to terms with their relationship. As painful as it is for Val, she finally sees her social position. She understands the sacrifice she has made for her daughter. When she gleefully stands in the very pool her daughter was pulled out for polluting, her transformation has come full circle. In that scene Val finally understands the ramifications of her social position. She realises at this point that perhaps it is never too late to live the life you have always wanted with the people you love.
There is an interesting parallel between Val’s relationship with her employers’ son Fabinho and her relationship with her daughter. A powerful emotional bond between Val and the boy is most tenderly shown when he seeks her out to sleep in the stuffy room that Jessica cannot bear. He also looks for her to comfort him when he fails the entrance exams for university. Val is the “Second Mother” to Fabinho and she clearly dotes on him. There are also similarities between Val and Jessica’s mother/daughter relationship and that of Barbara and Fabinho. Despite Barbara being at home, the emotional distance with her son is clear. In some ways, by relinquishing the care of her son to Val, she has also given up on building attachment and trust between the two of them. Familial relationships are precious entities that need to be protected and nurtured.
The film’s beauty and poignancy lies in its depiction of human relationships in all their messiness, pain and triumphs. As I left the cinema I felt I had been intruding on the intimacies of family life. It is remarkable that a film can make you feel this way whilst at the same time posing questions on wider global issues of economic necessity and poverty.
The Second Mother is released on 4 September by Soda Pictures.
Images courtesy of Soda Pictures. Copyright: Gullane-Filmes, photos by Aline Arruda.
First picture is of a middle-age bespectacled woman with dark longish hair, wearing a white shirt casually unbuttoned and knee-long trousers, sitting on a bed. A young bare-chested boy, wearing shorts, is lying on the bed, with his head on her lap, closing his eyes in delight as she massages his temples. The room seems a plain teenager’s room, with a computer screen in the background and some pictures on the walls.
Second picture is a of a young woman, wearing a black swimming suit, in the water (perhaps a swimming pool). Her eyes are closed and she’s laughing or shouting as she is being splashed with water.
Third picture is a shot from the interior of a house onto its garden, with dark armchairs in the foreground and pool in the background, with sliding glass door clearly visible. There’s a wooden table with some chairs on top outside the door. There are three people in the pictures, cleaning. A woman on the right is polishing the window, she’s wearing a blue apron, has dark hair and glasses. A woman in the middle is closer to the pool and is moping the floor. There is a man in the background, a bit blurry, who looks like a pool cleaner or a gardener.