Can they possibly connect with each other after those long years of separation between them? “The Second Mother”, Brazil’s official submission to Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in the next year, is a calm, gentle family drama revolving around a plain working-class woman who has worked hard for her daughter but never been around her for many years, and it tenderly observes how her mundane life happens to be stirred by one unexpected change. While not hurrying itself, the movie patiently generates subtle human moments to engage us, and it is touching to watch what has been changed inside its main character at the end of the story.
The opening scene of the film reflects its original title “Que Horas Ela Volta?”, which means “When Will She Be Back?” in Portuguese. Val (Regina Casé) works as a maid for one upper middle class family living in a suburban neighbourhood of São Paulo, and we see Val taking care of her employers’ little son Fabinho in the absence of his busy mother. Val is more like a mother to Fabinho as shown from this warm scene, and we learn later that Val left her young daughter Jéssica in her rural hometown because she thought that would be better for her daughter.
She might have initially expected that she would work just for a few years to earn enough money and then return to her daughter waiting for her, but we see Val still working in the same house when the movie jumps forward to 13 years later. Fabinho (Michel Joelesas) now grows up enough for the upcoming college admission examination, but he still looks like that little boy he once was when he is with Val, who lovingly caresses him as if he were her child.
We see the other people in the house. We meet Val’s fellow employee/best friend Edna (Helena Albergaria), and we watch the distant relationships among Fabinho and his parents during their dinner time. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), who was once a painter, looks flaccid and detached as aimlessly going through his uneventful domestic life, and Barbara (Karine Teles) is busy with her work as before. While the movie does not tell much about her job, one scene involved with a TV interview held at her house suggests a lot about her prominent social/professional status.
On one day, Val gets a surprise news from her hometown. Her daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who grows up a lot just like Fabinho, will come to São Paulo for the college admission examination, and she is going to stay with her mother for a while until she finds some other place to stay. Although she has not somehow talked with her daughter much during recent months, Val cannot possibly be happier to hear this news.
She meets her daughter at the airport a few days later, and she is more surprised to see how much her dear daughter looks different than before – and how much she disregards the social boundaries inside the house of her mother’s employers. She behaves more like a guest of the house rather than a maid’s daughter, and she instantly accepts the offer when Carlos kindly suggests that she study and sleep in the guest room instead of Val’s stuffy room. Val is understandably nervous due to her daughter’s casual direct attitude in front of Carlos and Barbara, but Carlos and Barbara are not so upset about Jéssica. After all, she does come here for the exam as she says although the chance is pretty low for her, and she is not going to stay forever in their house, so it does not hurt much for them to be nice and generous to her.
But then her presence creates a certain kind of tension below the surface as she spends more time in the house. We begin to notice something from how Carlos looks at Jéssica, and so do Val and Barbara, who is usually self-absorbed but is not oblivious at all to what is going on inside her house. While he may look like a big baby when he sneaks into Val’s room and spends the night on her bed, Fabinho is not a child any more, and there is a playful moment when he and his friend have some naughty fun with Jéssica in the house pool.
While such a situation like this could be easily developed into overwrought melodrama, the director/writer Anna Muylaert instead chooses a more thoughtful path for her sensitive storytelling, and her movie delicately moves around the spoken and unspoken feelings around its characters. We come to feel more of the quiet desperation behind Carlo’s detachment, and we are not surprised when he becomes a little more direct that before at one point. The movie also pays considerable attention to Barbara, who is not mean and heartless despite her many human flaws. When the camera looks at her face when she sees that her son is more attached to Val than her, you can feel how much it hurts her, even though she is not that close to her son enough to give him any nice comfort he needs.
And the movie is firmly anchored by the heartfelt lead performance by Regina Casé, who is effortless as a woman who eventually comes to realize that things may be changing for herself as well as her daughter. Camila Márdila, who won the Special Jury Prize along with Casé at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is also wonderful as the daughter who turns out to be not very different from her mother, and the final scene of “The Second Mother” is quietly moving thanks to these good actresses. They say blood is thicker than water, and there will be probably plenty of time for this mother and daughter to get their relationship thickened more.