The Second Mother is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s deeply satisfyingly to see a story so deceptively simple unfold with such thoughtful and thought provoking resonance. Two channels to the left of The Second Mother and you arrive at Pedro Almodovar. Two channels to the right and you arrive at Ingmar Bergman. Hovering somewhere between Almodovar and Bergman is Anna Muylaert who approaches a story rife with agonizingly awkward situations in a film where her characters are allowed to change in unpredictable ways. It’s easy to see the film as a study of class issues. On another level it’s a tangled soap opera where the dramatic plot twists keep you on the edge of your seat as you wait for the emotional payoff. It might be a little of both. But neither of those angles quite captures the total emotional effect because the sum of its parts add up to far more. The most remarkable thing we take away from this film are the sensations that linger in our conscious and unconscious thoughts, the unintended aftershocks of a work of genius.
The Second Mother revolves around a housekeeper and nanny, Val (a superb Regina Casé), whose own daughter was left behind when she went to work for a wealthy family. She has raised their young son, Fabinho; and years later when he’s a teenager, he still seeks her bosom for comfort and her soothing voice for reassurance, much to his birth mother’s horror. It’s okay, though, because a nanny is a nanny and can never take the place of a mother. This is how a mother must rationalize the irrational jealousy that no doubt springs forth when a child grows up relating more to his nanny than his own mother. The family dynamic could probably maintain its balance indefinitely were it not for the catalyst of Val’s daughter arriving to disturb the balance.
Because Val behaves like a servant is supposed to, because she is casually ordered around and made to sleep in a tiny, stuffy, hot room which might as well be a walk-in closet, it might not feel as wrong as it all is. The daughter’s presence illuminates that wrongness because she, unlike her mother, refuses to behave like a servant or a lesser person in the presence of her mother’s employers. Eat this ice cream, sit in that chair, don’t go in the swimming pool, do not eat with the family, stay in the kitchen during meals. These mutually agreed upon rules are how things are conducted in wealthy homes but this story is told from the point of view of the underlings.
The film is directed to emphasize the viewpoint of the servants. We watch Val listen to the family discuss serious matters. We see the family through narrow openings in half-closed doors. It’s part of Val’s job to remain efficiently unobtrusive, and she is good at it — so good at it that she forgets who she is and what really matters. In that way, The Second Mother is a kind of coming-of-middle-age story where a woman evolves past one phase of her life and opens another.
Val’s daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila) responds with distant bemusement to the people who keep her mother in their employ. It is absurd, she thinks, to see her mother being ordered around – “clear the table, Val.” “Serve lunch, Val.” The employers are unaccustomed to having this much light cast on the complications of this kind of sticky hierarchy. As consequence, the mother wants Jessica gone, while the father is enamored.
The beauty of The Second Mother is that it so gets what motherhood is all about. It gets the primal urge of nurturers to feel needed and to give of themselves in ways others won’t. This isn’t a biological connection and a mother does not even have to be a woman — but mothers know themselves, they know what compels them to take care of those they dearly love. It is a strong impulse, an irreplaceable one. Yet, this film is also about the needs of women to escape the confines of that role to explore, perhaps, other ways of living — like studying to become an architect, or leaving your child behind in order to work hard to be sure there is enough money for your child to have proper clothes and education. The intricate layers here are profound, if you know where to look and if you’re paying close enough attention.
There is also a hidden layer, a daring and comical layer, f the kind of sensual, intimate relationship that has developed between this “nanny” and her surrogate son. Though he’s almost a grown man she strokes his hair lovingly, he sleeps in her bed with her when he is restless. He loves her almost passionately and yet it never tips over into a sexual relationship. It isn’t supposed to. It is meant to show that this woman formed such a close bond with the kid she helped raise that no one would ever think of her as anything but the second mother.
Too many will watch this film and see only its surface. It will look like a class struggle, or perhaps a sympathetic portrait of a hard suffering woman. What I see when I watch this film is the kind of story we just don’t see here in the states — not about women, not about people, not about life.
The Second Mother is a quiet standout but a standout nonetheless. If the writer/director of The Second Mother – Anna Muylaert – had been born a man he probably would be getting invites to direct much bigger Hollywood movies than I’m gonna bet are being thrown Muylaert’s way as we speak. They should. They should invest in this kind of talent and focused storytelling. Brazil’s Foreign Language frontrunner should leap to the front of the line for Oscar consideration. As always, it will be a highly competitive year, with films like Son of Saul, Dheepan and Labyrinth of Lies. Already The Second Mother is earning rave reviews as one of the unexpected gifts of the season.