If you’ve seen Sebastian Silva’s acclaimed Chilean film The Maid (2009), you might find The Second Mother a little familiar. Like The Maid, this Brazilian feature is a pointed comedy of manners about a domestic worker who’s lived with an upper-class family for so long that she’s come to define herself through them. As in The Maid, a newcomer to the household threatens the veteran’s stable position; the maid responds anxiously at first but ends up rediscovering her identity and growing from the experience. Writer-director Anna Muylaert even advances a perspective reminiscent of Silva’s, sympathizing with her characters but noting how ingrained class prejudices shape their behavior. Her visual style is more rigorous than Silva’s, though; for much of the film the camera never moves, emphasizing the meticulous, even suffocating mise-en-scene. Sometimes the luxurious settings seem like a prison, which is a fitting visual metaphor for the trapped heroine.
In The Maid the title character is threatened by the arrival of a new domestic servant; in The Second Mother the title character is threatened by the arrival of her own daughter. Longtime maid Val (Regina Casé in a winning, earthy performance) receives a phone call from her daughter, Jessica, whom she abandoned ten years earlier to take her current live-in position in São Paulo. Jessica wants to apply to architecture school in the city and lodge with her mother once she arrives. Val’s employers not only allow Jessica to move into their fancy home but give Val extra money to help her daughter settle in. “You’ve helped us raise our son, so you’re practically family,” explains Bárbara (Karine Teles), the matriarch. Indeed Bárbara’s son, who is about Jessica’s age, is closer to Val than to his own mother, which breeds quiet resentment in Jessica once she arrives.
The friction between Jessica and the family continues to build. Val urges Jessica to be obsequious with the family members, but Jessica grows familiar with them right away, befriending the son and accepting gifts from the father. This upsets Bárbara; she becomes increasingly passive-aggressive toward Val, who then takes out her frustrations on Jessica. Muylaert presents this chain reaction as the stuff of wry comedy; except for Jessica, the characters are so accustomed to keeping up appearances that they can’t bring themselves to say what’s bugging them. Their interactions may be mild, but the claustrophobic imagery creates the sense of being trapped in a powder keg. v