Dona Bárbara’s house is a house of rules—rules which her steadfast maid and nanny Val (Regina Casé) eagerly keeps. Val navigates the unspoken taboos endemic to upper-class São Paulo households in an exhaustive lower-class ballet: Val may enter the dining room, but only to clean or serve the family; Val may live in their mansion, but only if she keeps to herself in a tiny, suffocating room with no air conditioning; Val may teach their son Fabinho how to swim, but she must never, under any circumstances, get in the pool herself. Later, when Val’s estranged daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila) breaks this last sacred rule, Dona Bárbara has the pool emptied and cleaned. Her reason? She saw a “dead rat” in it.
Anna Muylaert’s new Brazilian drama The Second Mother is a piercing examination of the curious Brazilian practice of upper class surrogate motherhood. In an interview, Muylaert explained:
“In my social circles, rather than look after your own baby, more often you hired a live-in nanny and outsourced most of the work…But those nannies very often have to leave their own kids with someone else in order to fit into that scheme…This social paradox struck me as one of the most significant in Brazil, because it’s always the kids who lose out, both those of the employers and those of the nannies.”
In the film, Val has spent thirteen years raising Dona Bárbara’s family while her own daughter gets brought up by relatives in their native Pernambuco, a less affluent region in the Northeast of Brazil. While studying for college entry exams, Jéssica barges into Val’s life to live with her, upsetting the carefully maintained master-servant equilibrium of Dona Bárbara household. Jéssica takes an almost stubborn pride in breaking the unspoken rules, foisting indignity after indignity upon Dona Bárbara. She doesn’t just swim in their pool—she eats their food (at their dining room table!), commandeers their immaculate guest room instead of sleeping with Val, and even makes Dona Bárbara make her breakfast one morning.
The cultural conflict between life in the major cities, especially São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and in the Northeast represents a cornerstone of Brazilian cinematic discourse. But whereas traditionally people from the Northeast are stereotyped as uneducated and stupid—see Suzana Amaral’s superb Hour of the Star (1985) for a great example—Jéssica represents a new generation of Brazilians: headstrong, doggedly intelligent, eager to shuffle off the suffocating restraints of racism and classicism. Muylaert brilliantly brings the film to a nervous boil as it becomes clear that Val will have to ultimately choose between her employer, and by extension her surrogate son Fabinho, and her biological daughter whom she barely knows. The trick is realizing that in Brazilian culture, the answer is not as obvious as it might seem to outsiders. The tension is aided by Muylaert’s almost Ozu-esque rigor in keeping her camera steady, static, and impartial. Much like in the films of that great Japanese master, shots sometimes begin before any of the actors have entered the frame. If the camera must move, the movements are nearly subliminal. I have seen more dramas than I can remember which were drained of energy and impact via similar methods. But The Second Mother proves a worthy exception.