Dynamics of a second-class citizen

brasilobserver - Aug 20 2015
Regina Case plays Val (Photo: Divulgation)

(Leia em Português)

‘The Second Mother’ paints a picture of the “big house and slave quarters” relationship that still exists in Brazil. “My approach is not to judge but to show the truth crudely,” says the director of the film, Anna Muylaert, to Brasil Observer


By Gabriela Lobianco

Debuting on 4 September in Britain, The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?, in Portuguese), a new movie by the Brazilian director Anna Muylaert (Durval Discos, É Proibido Fumar), and starring the actress Regina Case, who plays Val. “There is a thirst for high quality foreign language cinema, following the success of films like Wild Tales and Force Majeure this year,” said Hannah Farr, Communications Coordinator at SODA Pictures, commercial representative and responsible for launching the film in the UK.

But before, the movie had a unique exhibition on 12 August as part of the Film4 Summer Screen, an outdoor film festival that happens for 14 days in the wonderful neoclassical garden of Somerset House.

Anna Muylaert during Sundance Festival (Photo: Divulgation)

Anna Muylaert during Sundance Festival (Photo: Divulgation)

The only Brazilian movie of the festival, the film was chosen for the session called Summer Screen Spotlight, which highlights the work of a director from anywhere in the world that is little known by the British audiences. The choice was a passion at first sight of the curator, David Cox, during the Berlin Film Festival this year. “I couldn’t wait for other people to see it too, and realised that the best way to make that happen was for us to programme it at Somerset House. The audience response at the festival was so positive and lively that I’m looking forward to experiencing that again.” He assured that the premiere was not a marketing strategy, “although hopefully the word-of-mouth from our premiere will help the film when it’s released in September,” he said to the Brasil Observer.

Acclaimed at the Berlinale and at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the most important in the United States, the feature film garnered awards and surprised even the director. “Although I was sure about the film I have on hand, I could never imagine the size of the impact, especially outside the festival circuit and in the film market itself,” said Anna Muylaert in an exclusive conversation with Brasil Observer.



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At first, the idea of ​​the film is drawing a social portrait of power relations and affection between employers and employees in Brazilian society. Anna remembered what historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda said: the Portuguese brought to Brazil the idea of ​​“leisure rather than business.” “In other words, here to not do the [domestic] service is more valuable than to do the job,” she said. So The Second Mother is a work of social genre that talks with subtle touches on very deep-seated issues and culture of the country. Questions of a contemporary Brazil that still has not abandoned its colonial roots.

This “big house and slave quarters” relationship, to recall the book by Gilberto Freyre (The Masters and the Slaves), is still alive. And it is in the skin of Val (Regina Case) that we find this dynamic. From the North-eastern region of Brazil, divorced, migrant and probably illiterate, she has worked for 13 years as nanny of Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), the only son of a upper-middle-class couple from São Paulo, while her daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila) is raised by relatives in Pernambuco. Muylaert explains that working with Regina was designed, among other things, because of the physical type of the actress – “a syncretism mirror of races in Brazil because in one figure she’s white, black and indigenous” – which fits perfectly in the paradigm of the poor and marginalized class represented by Val.

At the beginning, Val is treated as a family member by employers, Barbara (Karine Telles) and Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), with her little room at the back, and serves with exemplary discipline and affection. Then, the routine of the house is broken: the maid’s daughter appears in São Paulo to take university exams. In this reunion, Jessica does not understand how the mother lends itself to the role of servant or, in her words, how she agrees to be treated as “second-class citizen”. The subservience of Val in this upscale neighbourhood of Morumbi house, hamstrung by Paraisópolis slum, is exposed.

Muylaert, however, focuses its mise-en-scene in a graceful and elegant way, suggesting instead of imposing, with looks that expose the story without intervening. “My approach is not to judge the characters and their actions, but to show the truth crudely.” It is clear, however, that for inequality to be perpetuated it’s necessary for rich and poor to know what their places and their positions of power are. After all, as we say in Brazil, for the wise, half a word is enough.



The film is the realization of a more than 20-year project that Anna Muylaert began at the time of her first pregnancy. “It’s a question that we women face: no one wants to leave the baby, but we cannot give up having a professional life and consequent financial independence.” In this sub theme unfolds an issue as large as the exposed class struggle within the film: to give and take care of life.

The sexist mentality of society in general still says that being a mother is something innate to all women, and that it has the responsibility of caring for the young. According to Anna, especially in Brazil, the mother’s work is not valued, “it is almost as if the child was hers alone; proof of this is the low wages of nannies.”

In a larger context, this shows that society stipulates that domestic work is not noble, whether it be exercised by the mother or by a contracted employee. And, just as rich and poor have its role in the social wheel, women and men have pre-established social functions. “I think that we women have to open this discussion because we are in a wrong world, built by the sexist values, concerned about the relevant values ​​to male beings. And within this world the issue of education, for example, is not as valued as it should,” she argues.

The American anthropologist Donna Goldstein, in her book Laughter out of place: race, class, violence, and sexuality in a Rio Shantytown, describes that it is within the emotional exchange between those who can pay for home help and the poor [women] offering their services that class relations are practiced and played. More wicked than any relationship between employers and employed, so is the emotional relationships that emerge in these ties, strengthening the hierarchy that imposes housework, especially when children are involved.

Muylaert believes that “more than genetics, who educates is who leaves the deepest marks.” In this sense, submerge a pain in my chest, as I leave my daughter in full time day care while I work for the bread. I hope that as Val, I can overcome any trace on my baby. After all, we still live for the capital.


*To find out the film exhibition venues in the UK, visit the Soda Pictures website: www.sodapictures.com