Matriarchal Mastery: THE SECOND MOTHER Film Review

By at September 21, 2015 | 10:37 pm | Print

4.5 / 5 stars

Que Horas Ela Volta Movie Poster“What time will she be back?” That’s the question little Fabinho asks the family maid in the opening scene of The Second Mother, wondering aloud when his mom will return to their well-appointed Sao Paolo home. In Portuguese, it’s Que horas ela volta?, which is the actual title of Anna Muylaert’s exceptional study of parenthood and status before it was renamed for a North American audience. The original title is more poetic for Muylaert’s film, an artistic achievement that examines the relationship between families of different means, a fantastic movie that’s both blunt and sneakily subtle.

After that intro, we’re sped ahead about 10 years. Fabinho is no longer little, but he’s still the apple of his housekeeper’s eye. He’s the teenage golden child in a family with a reserved dad, an image-obsessed mom, and plenty of cash. Maid Val wears her loving heart on her sleeve, protecting Fabinho’s weed and guarding his favorite ice cream, while exhibiting an old-world respect for the family that employs her. Even in the most casual settings, Val is asked to clear the table or bring the man of the house a soda, with Muylaert’s camera often responding as spontaneously as her lead character (played by famed Brazilian TV actor Regina Casé.)

The household dynamic might have been seen as normal four decades ago on The Brady Bunch – if ever – but here, it has an appropriate air of discomfort. Val’s dedication to the family seems practically unconditional, almost slavish, and we wonder why. Maybe it’s habit after so many years. Perhaps she prides herself as the family martyr, sleeping in cramped quarters and cleaning up after everyone.

Cleaning Scene from The Second Mother

The unspoken class structure gets gloriously turned on its ear with the arrival of Val’s teen daughter, Jessica (the remarkably composed Camila Márdila). She’s appalled that her mom doesn’t have a place of her own and gleefully sets to break up expectations as soon as she arrives. The entire sequence that marks Jessica’s first day visiting is brilliant cinema, as Muylaert slowly transfers power from the family to this engaging young woman.

At first, Jessica’s experience is as restrictive as her mother’s, as she quickly sees the Sao Paolo sights from the seat of a bus (views that we, the audience, are not privileged to see). But later that evening at the family home, Jessica is firmly in control, with Muylaert’s handheld camera moving more confidently, more assured. Jessica easily taps into the rhythms of conversation, which Muylaert stages as a fascinating bite of sociology.

Regina Case and Camila Mardila in The Second Mother

In a masterful piece of blocking, the two male characters seem to glide across the screen toward Jessica as she peruses a bookshelf – an intelligent, inquisitive girl and her power of attraction. By the next morning, Jessica’s status in the home is higher than her mother’s. Which confounds Val and creates a complicated set of emotions for everyone else. Including us.

This simmering chaos works both as social commentary and high entertainment. Muylaert has so much going on under the surface and in the corners – mostly wonderful little visual takes – dancing around others’ big statements and big actions. The Second Mother is a modern comedy of manners with an enormous sympathy for its characters but also for people in general, for anyone who’s ever needed their mom, who’s wondered aloud when she’d return.

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