Our reviewer in…Maysa Moncao looks into the history and culture of her home country of Brazil, following her viewing of The Second Mother.
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I am Brazilian and I don’t understand my own country.
As time goes by, I continue to live abroad and become more and more aware of Brazil’s contradictions. A friend used to say that Brazil is a farmakon, the Greek term for both medicine and poison. That is to say, on the right dose, it heals you; if you overdose, it kills you.
The Second Mother is the bittersweet story of Val (Regina Casé), a live-in nanny and housekeeper who left her child in the Northeast of Brazil to migrate to Sao Paulo. Her life would change meaningfully when her daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who hasn’t seen Val for a decade, gives her a call to inform she is coming to Sao Paulo in order to do an exam to get into the university.
The movie is a sad comedy itself. The antithesis I propose to you right now is a must to get the feeling of this social art film, which so beautifully exposes our contradictions to the world.
We know that since the publishing of “Raizes do Brasil” (Roots of Brazil) by the historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda, in 1936, the socio-economic and cultural effects of a long-lasting society based on slavery is not in our subconscious anymore. It is here in plain sight for everyone to recognise, even though its legacy is quite difficult to overcome, forgive and progress from.
Brazil is the country of the future. And it seems it will remain so.
Let’s try to follow that string by taking The Second Mother as a perfect example.
Val has made a choice in the past. She chose to leave her daughter in her hometown, the poor Brazil, and work as a nanny in the not-so-poor Brazil in the Southeast. She was not a present mother to her child, but instead was a second mother to the child of her boss. Nannies in Brazil have inherited somewhat the role of the women slaves who took care of the children of big coffee and sugar cane farmers 400 years ago. They would live in the big house, close to the family, and almost always be treated with affection as if a member of the family, but in reality there is a huge gap. Val understands well this gap and her role, and insists Jéssica respects the boundaries. But instead Jéssica will be the one to show her that these can be overcome.
The most emotional scene in The Second Mother is when Val gets into the pool. The pool is half empty now, which means theoretically that Val is not allowed to have any pleasure where she lived for 20 years. But at the same time, being half empty means that Val is now in control of the water, and in control of her own emotions, that can now be freely expressed. It can flow, she can float, she can play, she can fly.
Another contradiction in Brazil refers to the educational system. The public schools are of a low level, meanwhile the public universities are mostly attended by the rich. So poor people would have a minor chance to get in the best universities, resulting in social mobility which is quite stuck, with exceptions of course. Brazil is not a system of caste, capitalism runs the country, but it is still a very unfair society. In the film, we can see the astonishment at Val’s boss reaction when informed that Jéssica will try the best Architecture course in Brazil, at the most traditional and modern – another antithesis if I might say – college. And yet Jéssica’s efforts prove to be worthwhile.
There is also a symbolic attempt not to repeat the same history and burden of the mothers. The feeling is that Jéssica will succeed, but again it is a frenzied feeling. The same frenzied feeling when we think, “Ah! Agora vai, Brasil.” (Now it is your turn, Brazil. Go!)
A third example reminding us of the roots of Brazil is the character played by Lourenço Mutarelli (Carlos). The ridiculous comic scene when he proposes to Jéssica, even though it is a subtle memory of sexism, transports ourselves to the time of the slavery. Bastards were common in the farms, and both slaves and wives had to swallow their pride and live with the man’s desires as unquestionable law. Fortunately here it is not a violent scene; it is just a lunatic gesture, an allowance to a courtuous licentiousness. Farmakon, my reader, farmakon.
The Second Mother had its preview at Somerset House last week and will be on cinemas in the UK on September 4th.
The Second Mother
A Que Horas Ela Volta?
Director: Anna Muylaert.
Drama, 112 Minutes
WITH REGINA CASÉ, LOURENÇO MUTARELLI, CAMILA MÁRDILA
ABOUT THE FILMMAKER: Anna Muylaert is a Brazilian scriptwriter and filmmaker, known for “Durval Records” (2002) and “The year my parents went on vacation” (2006). This year “The second mother” won two important prizes at film festivals, Panorama Audience Award in Berlin and World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award in Sundance.