The Secong Mother
Starring Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenço Mutarelli
The Second Mother probably has the single best performance in a foreign film I have seen this year. Brazil’s entry to the 88th Academy Awards has native Regina Case in a role that given to any American actress in an English film, would land her at the best actress table. Writer/director Anna Muylaert explores class differences in Brazil but she does it in a way that isn’t obvious like James L. Brooks doomed Spanglish (2004) or the award winning Gosford Park (2001). It’s true all these films focus on “the help” being compared with their wealthy employer, however The Second Mother accesses something deeper, more personal and often hilariously uncomfortable.
For years Val (Case) has lived with and worked for a rich family in Sao Paolo, she loves her job and the entire household, especially their son Fabinho (Joelsas), who she has helped raise. Estranged from her own daughter Jéssica (Márdila), one day out of the blue Val receives a call that her teenage girl will be moving to Sao Paolo and hopes to reconnect. Head of the family, and local celebrity Bárbara (Teles) allows Jéssica to stay at their home until she applies for a local prestigious college, ironically the same one Fabinho will be applying. Within 24 hours of Jéssica’s arrival, Val’s entire world is turned upside down, as a maid and a servant to the family she has always understood her place, but her daughter feels privileged and equal to the family which causes great discourse to the balance.
Single best performance in a foreign film I have seen this year.
The essence of Val, played expertly by Casé, is explained through various scenes and interactions with different members of the family. She is the sweet, spoiling grandmother type who has nothing but love and positive energy. An entire scene is devoted to Val’s fascination with a thermos and tea cup set that she claims is “very modern” because of its black and white mix n’ match color. Her fully realized eccentricities make this character so real and relatable. Casé is so overly expressive that it’s almost funny. The Jéssica character is like a bomb that disrupts everything Val understands, for the first time she begins to see her life differently.
Anna Muylaert’s script is smart enough to keep this material outside of the “soap opera” range of drama. We understand Val to her core which makes the audience very uncomfortable when Jéssica crosses all these unspoken boundaries. They have a discussion about common sense and misunderstood etiquette. If you don’t understand the characters the tension doesn’t work and the script does such a great job at giving the audience and the actors all the information they need to make the connection. If The Second Mother has a fault it’s the wear-and-tear on the viewer, Val is so endearing but a handful and exhausting to watch.
A fascinating portrait of a fictional character brought to life by an incredible performance.