Having it all
THE SECOND MOTHER, in Portuguese with English subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
A working mother faces tough choices. When she’s at work, she must rely on a caregiver for her young child. But if she spends too much time at work, can she lose her child’s affection to the caregiver? In The Second
Mother, director Anna Muylaert hovers over this question and gives us a very enjoyable story, which nonetheless could have been more nuanced. Val (Regina Casé), a full-time maid in a high-end neighborhood in São Paulo, has taken care of Barbara’s only child, Fabinho, since he was a toddler. The film’s Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? means “What time will she return?” — a question little Fabinho asks Val about his mother. Barbara (Karine Teles), a famous style-setter, is always busy working. Her husband, Dr. Carlos, is a spaced-out retiree — he has inherited some wealth and has given up his aspirations to be a painter. Val’s labors provide the grease to keep the family’s domestic life running. When Val’s teenage daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), arrives for a temporary stay, this cozy existence is upended.
Addressing the issue of caregivers, Penelope Leach, the author of the bestselling Your Baby and Child, writes: “Indeed, the more people children have to love and feel loved by, the more lovable and loving they are likely to be.” But that’s not what happens in Barbara’s life. When she gets into a car accident, Fabinho — now a teenager — doesn’t even bother to visit her in the hospital. Presumably Barbara has lost Fabinho’s love not only because she is a workaholic, but also because she’s addicted to her iPhone in the evenings. In any case, Barbara is portrayed a tad harshly. That she has a lightweight profession is beside the point; even fashionistas have to put in the hours to stay afloat. What if Barbara were a life-saving surgeon? Would that make her more immune to mockery?
In the end, Val gives up her work in order to attend to her life as a mother — that’s not exactly a welcome solution for working women who don’t have that option. The use of working mothers as fall guys exposes a philosophical crater in this film. Still, this is a rewarding story for the questions it raises and for the touches of humor throughout. One episode that is jarring is Dr. Carlos’ outsize reaction to Jéssica — this isn’t completely believable, given the short amount of time they’ve known each other.
Regina Casé gives a superb performance as Val. In her role as a maid, she is subservient to Barbara, she loves Fabinho dearly, and she tries to pound (without any success) social codes into her daughter. Jéssica is a breath of oxygen, not the least because she mocks social barriers. She intends to study architecture and has passed the first-level entrance exams to the university of her dreams. Still, assuming that Jéssica will join an architecture firm after graduation, she’ll eventually need some reliable form of childcare too. — Priyanka Kumar
Labor day: Regina Casé