One of my favorite new TV comedies this year is Another Period, an absurd farce that somehow combines the stuffiness of Downton Abbey with the bad behavior of trashy reality television. The show is all about the upstairs/downstairs dynamics of a Newport home at the turn of the 20th century, and the absurd lengths the characters will go to maintain an unspoken degree of decorum. The new Brazilian drama The Second Mother has the same tension of Another Period, except it replaces absurd comedy with empathy and a simmering sense of drama. Sometimes the tension is a lot too bear, yet writer/director Anna Muylaert wades through the awkwardness with a gentle sense of humor and sympathy for her characters.
The brief prologue is unusual for two reasons: it is one static shot, and there is a big time jump between it and the title card. We see Val (Regina Casé) pamper a young boy that is not her own – she is the hired help – and then she fumbles through a call with her actual daughter. Muylaert then jumps ahead about ten years, and the young boy Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) is now a sullen teenager. Fabinho’s parents Barbara (Karine Teles) and Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) are incredibly wealthy – their Sao Paulo home is sleek and modern – and Val lives in a small room within it.
One day Val gets a call from her daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila), who plans to visit while she studies for a university entrance exam. Val gets permission for Jessica to stay under Carlos and Barbara’s roof, and the new dynamics are tolerable until Jessica only rebels against the aforementioned decorum. Jessica is a catalyst for both upstairs and downstairs: Carlos showers her with attention, while Val has newfound shame over her station in life.
Muylaert’s shrewdly uses camera placement to show the emotional journey of her characters. The kitchen upstairs is austere and spacious, and shifts in focus demonstrate how Val is meant to invisible to the others (except when she isn’t). The downstairs scenes are much more claustrophobic: we never see Val’s room in its entirety, and the soft light gives the space a woozy, off-kilter feeling. While Muylaert is critical of this situation, she also understands it is no one person’s fault. Carlos, Barbara, and Fabinho use Val like a doormat, and she is no position to correct them.
Two sub-plots demonstrate just how toxic the dynamics are: Fabinho and Val sometimes lay down together like lovers, while Carlos has no problem with seducing Jessica (her age is never mentioned, but I guess she’s about twenty). The performance are so seemingly effortless and natural that parts of The Second Mother feel like we are watching a documentary. Casé anchors the film as Val, a woman who is sort of a nag, but has her heart in the right place. She is smart, observant, and funny: there is a running gag about her constant muttering commentary, and it grows more intense as the drama escalates. By the time comic impasses shift toward outright hostility, Muylaert uses character maturity to resolve the plot. She does not take the simple route of giving the working class folks the most humility, and instead takes her time to consider who has the most to lose.
One of the few drawbacks of foreign films is American audiences are relatively oblivious to the socioeconomic structures in place elsewhere. I have a feeling The Second Mother will resonate more with Brazilian audiences than American audience, yet there is enough focus on character so that we don’t exactly need a primer on modern South American economic history. Even without that context, The Second Mother highlights a vast difference between upper class and working class, without showing many possibilities for those in the middle. There is a shift in income inequality as Val’s career progresses, and Muylaert sees dignity as the only option in a system that ekes out wealth for those that need it most.