Title: The Second Mother (original title Que Horas Ela Volta?)
Director: Anna Muylaert
Major Players: Regina Case, Camila Mardila
Out Of Five? Four
A quick translation. Not that my Portuguese is up to much, but I managed to work out that the original title for The Second Mother means “what time is she coming back?” It’s a line that appears early in the film, when a little boy asks the maid Val (Regina Case) when his mother is coming home from work. Her answer is that she doesn’t know – and it’s a question that keeps coming back to haunt both us and her.
Media celebrity Barbara (Karine Teles) employs Val as the family’s live-in maid but is so pre-occupied with her career that the servant becomes a surrogate mother to son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). Over the years, the mother, father and son come to regard Val as almost family, or so they say, but that comes at a price. She’s had to leave her own daughter, Jessica (Camila Mardila), with her estranged husband so she can earn money to pay for her upkeep. Then Jessica announces she’s coming to Sao Paulo to sit her university entrance exam. And her arrival proves to be something of a watershed for mother, daughter and the entire family.
While there’s not much in the way of physical action in the film, there’s plenty of the emotional variety, all centring on the relationships between the various protagonists. At the heart of the film is the mother/child relationship, regardless of whether there’s quotation marks surrounding either of those words. Val’s relationship with Fabinho is that of a doting mother: she adores him, they’re affectionate towards each other, which causes some resentment from Barbara. She can’t understand why he shows more affection towards the maid than he does to her yet, when he needs a comforting hug and even goes so far to put his arms round her, she responds by getting up and walking out of the room.
Then there’s Val’s relationship with her own child, the confident, intelligent Jessica. They’re close to being strangers: Val’s only ever spoken to her on the phone and paid occasional visits, laden with presents. Which means that Jessica’s expectations of her mother are dashed when she arrives in Sao Paulo, discovering that not only is she a live-in maid, but there are rules, so many rules, to conform to in the household. It’s a shock, an embarrassment and a source of shame. But Jessica doesn’t conform. She’s supposed to share her mother’s room while visiting, but discovers that the more spacious guest room isn’t being used and invites herself to use it. She takes other what Val and Barbara would regard as liberties, until the lady of the house calls a halt. She doesn’t like her using the swimming pool, so has it emptied on the pretext of having seen a rat in the water, despite the hot, humid weather.
Alongside the mother/child theme – and it extends beyond Val and Jessica or Barbara and Fabinho – there’s almost the feel of a modern Upstairs Downstairs about the film, but with a twist. It’s more a case of behind or in front of the door. And there are plenty of those in the family’s minimalist house. We’re introduced to characters by seeing them sat on the other side of an open door or simply hearing them, and there are lingering shots of the stairs from the basement (where all the bedrooms are located) to the door at the top, which leads to the upstairs part of the house. That door represents a boundary that Jessica refuses to recognise, so that when Barbara’s finally had enough of Jessica’s perceived transgressions, she tells Val the teenager not allowed beyond another door, the one from the kitchen into the rest of the house.
It may not sound like it, but The Second Mother is a gentle comedy, full of shrewd observations, sometimes sensitive, sometimes tart. Such as the scene when family has dinner: they’re all absorbed by their mobile phones and the silence is deafening. There’s some terrifically understated acting as well, especially from Regina Case as the warm-hearted Val, with her strong sense of her place in the world. Until Jessica’s presence prompts her to start questioning things.
The Second Mother took home trophies from this year’s Sundance and Berlin and is being tipped for more as the awards season approaches. Whether it wins again doesn’t change the fact that this is a small but beautifully formed film that examines some big relationships. Its ending might appear to be neat and tidy, but don’t be taken in. That’s only how it seems.
The Second Mother is released in selected cinemas around the UK on Friday, 4 September and is reviewed on Talking Pictures.