Berlinale - Film review: The Second Mother

Anna Muylaert’s heart-warming comedy, The Second Mother (Que horas ela volta?), starring Regina Casé is sure to prove a crowd pleaser and festival favourite (it premiered at Sundance where Case and Camila Mardila won the Special Jury Award for Acting). Val (Case), a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy, middle-class in São Paulo, has helped bring up their seventeen-year-old son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). She loves him as her own and he adores her. But Val’s work comes at a terrible price. She was forced to leave behind her young daughter Jessica with her estranged husband in order to be able to afford the money for her upkeep. Now seventeen, Jessica (Márdila) contacts Val as she is coming to São Paulo to sit her university entrance exam. They’ve not seen each other for ten years.

Val welcomes her daughter with love and trepidation but is mortified when Jessica refuses to conform to or accept the hierarchies in the family’s home. Instead of sleeping on a mattress in her mother’s tiny back room, Jessica asks if she can sleep in the opulent guest bedroom complete with en suite bathroom. She’s quick-witted, smart, intends to study architecture and is keen to prepare for the entrance exam. She’s also curious about her surroundings, hungry for knowledge and quickly beguiles both Fabinho and his father. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) has no need to work and is consequently bored and something of a loner. In contrast, his ambitious wife, Dona Bárbara (Karine Teles), has a keen sense of her status and is deeply suspicious of Jessica and her refusal to fit in.

There is refreshing political edge to Muylaert’s well-structured script. With Jessica’s arrival, class barriers are broken down, petty snobberies are revealed and weaknesses uncovered. These are some wonderful telling moments such as when Dona Bárbara is forced to make Jessica breakfast because she is sitting at their kitchen table. Later, Jessica sits down to eat lunch with Carlos and develops a liking for Fabino’s special chocolate ice cream. Val is scandalised by her daughter’s presumptuousness, pointing out that the family only offer her things because they expect her to say no. In another dining room scene, the family sit in silence, incapable of communication because they are all separately attached to their smart phones.

This brilliant, beautifully observed comedy is a joy to watch throughout. The narrative works on many levels, reflected in the film’s ambiguous title, and the characterisation is flawless. It’s also skilfully executed with Case leading a terrific ensemble cast. The Second Mother looks set to garner further plaudits.

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