The Second Mother is the bittersweet story of Val (Regina Casé), a live-in nanny and maid who left her own child in the Northeast of Brazil for a better life in São Paulo. Her life changes when her daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who she has not seen for a decade, calls her and says that she is going to São Paulo in order to take university exams.
The movie is a sad comedy.
It establishes a dialogue with Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1957), despite not being a melodrama. In Sirk’s film, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is raised amongst white people with her black mother (Juanita Moore), who works as a nanny for an actress’ daughter. Sarah Jane – who is able to pass as white in school – conceals her ethnic background from as many people as possible. Both daughters, Jéssica and Sarah Jane, question to their mothers about their passivity towards their employers.
Prejudice is present in both films. In the Brazilian film, classism surfaces when Val tells her daughter that she cannot eat the best ice-cream because that is reserved to the son of the bosses. In Imitation of Life prejudice appears in the shape of racism: Sarah Jane is beaten by his boyfriend upon finding out about her “nigger” background. Prejudice against female artists is also shown in Sirk’s film (when Sarah Jane attempts to become a singer). The same subject was hotly debated when The Second Mother was introduced in theatres across Brazil. Muylaert herself – as a woman filmmaker – has encountered the problem.
The current contradictions of Brazil are deeply rooted in the past. Historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda sustained in his book ‘Roots of Brazil’ (1936) that “in post-slavery Brazil liberal democratic ideals continue to be at odds” . The consequences are bright as daylight for everyone to see, and they are difficult to forgive and forget. Muylaert is exposing problems very familiar to Brazilians: The Second Mother is an imitation of life.
Val made a choice in the past: she left her daughter behind in he poor Northeast in Brazil in order to work in the more developed Southeast of country. She was absent during the upbringing of her own child, but instead was a second mother to her bosses’. Maids and nannies in Brazil have inherited the role of the female slaves who took care of the children in the coffee and sugar cane plantations during colonial times. They lived in their master’s house – and not in the slaves quarters -, close to the family. They were treated with affection as if a member of the family, but in reality there was a huge gap. Val understands this social gap and her role, and insists that Jéssica should respect the limits. But Jéssica insists to break the boundaries.
Val’s boss Barbara (Karine Teles) is surprised that Jéssica is taking exams to enter the country’s best architecture university. She becomes shell-shocked when Jéssica passes these exams, while her own son fails to do so. Jéssica challenges the socio-economics norms by rising through the educational ranks.
At one point Val’s boss Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) proposes to Jéssica in an awkward and absurd gesture. This is also a strong reminder of sexism and the legacy of slavery in Brazil. White masters routinely raped black slaves and the byproduct was mixed race children. The white women had to accept their husbands desire as a natural urge. Fortunately times have changed: Carlos is not violent towards Jéssica, instead he just comes across as a loony.
The most emotional scene in The Second Mother is when Val finally gets inside her bosses’ swimming pool, normally a no-go for domestic workers. The pool is half-empty, which triggers Val to take a drip. This is the first time she allows herself any pleasure in the house where she lived for 20 years. Val is now in control of the water and of her own emotions precisely because the pool is half empty: she can float, play, fly and freely express herself.
The Second Mother had its UK preview at Somerset House last summer and it won two important prizes at film festivals, Panorama Audience Award in Berlin and World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award in Sundance. It will be released on DVD in UK by Soda Pictures in the next few months. DMovies selected it as one of “the dirtiest Brazilian films of the past 10 years”.