The Second Mother

A magnificent drama about the charged relationship between household help and the household.

Regina Casé and Michel Joelsas in The Second Mother.

Regina Casé and Michel Joelsas in The Second Mother.

Still courtesy Oscilloscope Pictures

For two summers in the early ’90s, I lived in the beautiful, foliage-shaded house of a well-off Brazilian family in Rio de Janeiro, the family of my then-boyfriend. Along with his three younger brothers, he had been brought up in large part by a live-in nanny and housekeeper whom they called Teda—not her real name but an affectionate nickname that, if I remember right, my boyfriend had given her as a baby. I didn’t know much about Teda’s life outside her employers’ house, because she seldom mentioned it, but I know she had no children of her own. Still, she showed a mother’s willingness to haul out pictures of my beloved as a chubby, long-lashed baby and to enumerate his many merits before embarking on a list of my own.

Teda was the only person in that house as convinced as I was that my boyfriend had hung the moon, and the two of us bonded over our shared passion for him. But it was an awkwardly boundaried friendship, given her place in the household, which wobbled daily up and down the continuum between adored relative and patiently tolerated servant. Age, seniority, and ill health had relieved her of some of her household tasks—there were two younger women who came in to help with the cooking and dishes—but every day she served and cleared the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while never sitting down to the dining-room table herself. She slept in a room off the kitchen and watched TV in there after dinner, while we watched the same torrid telenovela—everyone was watching it that summer—in the living room nearby. She played inscrutable head games with the mistress of the household, my boyfriend’s mother, whom she had known since childhood.

After I went back to the U.S. at the end of that first summer, Teda sent me a postcard I still have, a birds’-eye view of Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset. It was signed, “Sua amiga e mãe preta”—your friend and black mother—“Teda.” When she died six or seven years later I was no longer with that boyfriend, but he called to tell me and we talked about her for a long time. I knew what her love had meant to him and how much pain he felt at the cruel restriction of that love—and more broadly, of Teda’s life—by the social conditions that determined their relationship’s very existence.

The place I visited in 1990, where many if not most upper-middle-class families maintained similar relationships with their household help, was a Brazil of a different time: less than a year out from its first direct election after decades of military dictatorship, with a system of racial and class hierarchies so fixed in place and so finely calibrated it was difficult for an outsider to discern the distinctions at all. For example, what did it even mean to identify as black in a country made up of immigrant populations from around the globe, where indigenous people, Portuguese colonizers, and the descendants of African slaves have been intermarrying for centuries?

In the 25 years since I first went there, Brazil has embarked on a period of social opening and reform that’s significantly improved the condition of domestic workers. But the country still abounds in the kind of stark social gulfs that make lives like Teda’s possible. I thought of her from the very first frame of The Second Mother, the magnificent fourth feature from Brazilian director and screenwriter Anna Muylaert. It’s the story of Val (played by veteran actress and popular TV host Regina Casé), a live-in housekeeper in São Paulo whose decades of rigid adherence to the unwritten laws of class-bound behavior are brought into question when she’s reunited with her long-estranged daughter. Val isn’t Teda by any means—she has a different racial and familial history and a style of relating to her employers that’s both more self-abnegating and more prone to launching a well-aimed sly barb. But the scenes in which Val playfully caresses the hair and face of the teenage Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), whom she’s raised since babyhood, reminded me of the way Teda used to regard her charges’ bodies as her own personal property, grown-up or no.

Val’s own daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), is almost exactly the same age as the pampered Fabinho—in fact, both are preparing to take the same end-of-high-school state exam, which will determine their university placement the next year. But Jéssica hasn’t laid eyes on her mother in a decade; she’s been living in the country’s impoverished Northeast with a caregiver who, in turn, is financially supported by Val’s income. For reasons that aren’t clear until late in the film, Jéssica wants a new start. She comes to São Paulo to move in with her mother—which, she soon realizes to her chagrin, means occupying a mattress on the floor of the maid’s room in the stylish modern mansion of the family Val lives with.

That family is a piece of work, messed up in ways that take a whole movie to unfold, but never presented in a one-sidedly unsympathetic light. Fabinho’s father, Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), is a once-successful artist who’s stopped painting and gone into semiseclusion, sleeping till 11 every day. His wife Bárbara (Karine Teles) is a fashion designer, cleanliness-obsessed and seemingly welded to her smartphone, but not without flashes of genuine warmth toward both her family and her long-faithful housekeeper. But when the thoroughly modern Jéssica arrives, the equilibrium between employee and employers is thrown irreparably out of whack.

A bright, outspoken girl who’s managed to rise to the top of a subpar public school system, Jéssica is now interested in studying architecture as a tool for social change—a concept that’s all but indecipherable to her less educated mother but that wins the approval of the cultured Carlos. He warms to Jéssica’s unconventional bluntness and encourages her to occupy the family’s guest room—the one for “real” guests—instead of a mattress in her mother’s cramped quarters. The lady of the house assents with a less-than-thrilled nod to this act of class encroachment. But when Fabinho and his friend, cavorting in the swimming pool, teasingly pull Jéssica into the water with them, both families—the bosses’ and the maid’s—erupt in protest, equally horrified by this transgression of colonialist boundaries. There are some things that simply aren’t done, leaving open the question of what happens when someone keeps on doing them anyway.

Lest this sound like the setup for an ideological scold of a movie, I should emphasize that The Second Mother (whose title in Portuguese, Que Horas Ela Volta?, translates to the more allusive When Does She Get Home?) is never for a moment didactic or preachy. Casé’s performance is so natural, so richly comedic and devoid of actressy vanity, that you might think she was a nonprofessional actor found in a favela rather than the Oprah Winfrey of Brazil (if Oprah had gotten her start with an avant-garde theater collective and spent decades as a soap-opera star). It doesn’t hurt that Casé is descended from Northeasterners, lending credibility to her character’s regional provincialism and earthy sense of humor. Her Val is a complete and unique creation.

But The Second Mother isn’t just a backdrop for Casé’s bravura acting, nor for the equally well-observed performances of the whole ensemble cast (especially Márdila, who plays Val’s outwardly cocky, inwardly hurting daughter to perfection). Muylaert’s camera—the cinematography is by Barbara Alvarez—moves with fluid expressiveness, its sometimes unorthodox placement dictated not by a desire to “direct” but by the emotional grammar of the dramatic situation at hand. In one nearly wordless scene, Val proffers hors d’oeuvres at a party, circulating all but unseen among the guests in a comically retrograde maid’s uniform with lace-trimmed apron and cap. As she weaves her self-conscious way through the crowd, the camera follows her in a few sinuous, darting long takes, turning the usually invisible background into foreground. Suddenly it’s the ladies who lunch who fade out of sight, while the hired labor takes center stage. Muylaert’s eye for the nuances of class cold war is exacting but not pitiless. Even the most uncomfortable exchanges aren’t without flashes of humor or gestures—however mangled—in the direction of understanding and connection.  

The director has said in interviews that she conceived the idea for this movie 20 years ago, after hiring a nanny to care for her own sons and becoming starkly aware of the paradox posed by a culture that normalizes the practice of farming out parental affection for hire. The Second Mother has the texture of lived experience, with characters who aren’t political symbols or social archetypes but struggling, flawed people trying their best to lead decent lives and pave a path to happiness for their children. The last 15 minutes add a heart-tugging twist that I’m not sure was strictly necessary for the satisfactory resolution of the plot, but at least the ending—arguably the lone sentimental note in an almost perfectly judged movie—sends you out of the theater on a note of hope for the future. In a world of real-life stories like Teda’s, that’s not nothing.