‘The Second Mother’: Powerhouse performance as a servant who’s like family

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By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett News Service

For Val, the hard-working live-in housekeeper of a wealthy family in São Paulo, the lines of class are clearly drawn and immutable.

Never mind that she has raised the family’s son as her own, so that he is more comfortable with — and clearly more loving toward — her than his own mother. (As it turns out, who wouldn’t be?) Yet when Val’s daughter, whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years, shows up, she turns the family, and Val’s life, upside down.

We’ve seen plenty of stories about the arrival of a mysterious stranger upsetting the order of things. But “The Second Mother,” Brazilian writer and director Anna Muylaert’s outstanding film, is different. In part, that’s because both sides are changed by the end of the movie.

It’s also because of the powerhouse performance by Regina Casé as Val. At once brash and subservient, she has learned over time exactly how to play the family. The father, Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), is an artist who put down the brush, and seemingly everything else except his daily dose of medicine. His wife, Barbara (Karine Teles), is a TV personality who cares about her career and little else. Thus their son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), turns to Val for comfort, support and anything remotely resembling maternal instinct.

But what of Val’s real daughter, Jessica (Camila Mardila)? Val left her in the sticks years ago, and has ever since sent money for her upbringing. When it’s time to take a college-entrance exam, Jessica wants to come to São Paulo. Barbara insists that she stay with the family, but she has no idea what she’s getting herself into.

It’s important to note that the family does not actively mistreat Val. She’s well-paid and seemingly happy. (She and Fabinho cook up all sorts of little schemes under the oblivious eyes of his parents.) But Carlos and Barbara, in particular, treat her with casual disregard, or maybe disrespect isn’t too strong a word. Val simply knows her place, as far as they are concerned, and they like it that way.

Jessica will have none of this. She bops in and announces that she won’t share her mother’s modest living quarters. Instead, she will stay in the much more elegant (and large) guest room. Val is horrified at this breach of the unspoken social contract (there’s never been a need to speak of it), but Jessica is just getting started. It’s lost on no one that the rather pathetic Carlos has finally found something worth pursuing again — the teenage daughter of his housekeeper.

At first, Jessica is a jolt that serves to wake up the family. Soon her presence, and more particularly her attitude, begin to grate on Barbara. But it’s more complicated than that. Is Barbara jealous of where her husband’s attention has wandered, or simply jealous that someone else is getting attention of any kind?

Meanwhile, Val must deal with conflicting feelings: She left her daughter behind in part to give her a better chance at a good life. Now she’s back and a stranger, while the boy for whose parents she works thinks Val hangs the moon.

The performances are all good, but Casé’s is outstanding. Her Val is a woman who has worked hard for what she has attained, but in the end, what is that, really? Muylaert goes for answers and, at times, they may come a little easily for all of the turmoil that leads to them. (Her framing of scenes is terrific, using doorways and windows to give us Val’s limited view of the house and family — again reminding us of lines that aren’t to be crossed.) But Casé’s performance overwhelms any such quibbles. She is a delight, and thanks in large part to her performance, so is “The Second Mother.”

[s3r star=3/4]

Oscilloscope Laboratories presents a film written and directed by Anna Muylaert. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated R (for some language and brief drug use). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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