Monday, August 24, 2015

Work, class and family in Brazil: Anna Muylaert's surprise, THE SECOND MOTHER

The movie that, for most American arthouse audiences, will quickly come to mind when they watch THE SECOND MOTHER, a new Brazilian film from Anna Muylaert, will probably be Sebastián Silva's Chilean mini-masterpiece, The Maid. Both are first-rate explorations of family, class and work in today's South America, as they examine character, self-image and one's ability to change and grow. And both are spectacularly smart, witty, politically progressive and genuinely humane entertainments.

Ms Muylaert, shown at right, is aware of and interested in many of the same things as is Señor Silva. Their styles and approaches differ, as does the character of each of their leading roles: a well-into-middle-age woman who has effectively given away her life to that of another family and class. Oh, she is part of that family, to be sure -- but she is a very noticeable and large step below it. In The Maid, she begins as a harridan who slowly softens into her humanity; in The Second Mother, she is a font of affection and help who must harden and grow until she comes to understand and appreciate her very real worth.

Both roles are given all you could ask by their respective actors. In The Second Mother, as portrayed by Regina Casé (shown above and below), the maid Val is a wonder of seemingly limitless affection and concern, especially for the boy, Fabinho (shown above as a young child and below as a teen played with appropriate raw youth and uncertainty by Michel Joelsas). Val has been with this family long enough to guide Fabinho toward manhood, and he is more her child than is even her own daughter, Jessica, whom she had to abandon to other relatives in order to earn enough money for Jessica's support down the years.

When that daughter (a very interesting, subdued and smart performance by Camila Márdila, below, center, at bottom, and on poster, top) suddenly arrives to see her mom for the first time in a decade, everyone's life is thrown into disarray. The great strength of Muylaert's movie is that all this happens not quite as expected and with a different set of consequences from what our expectations hold -- even after we've been disabused of some of our earlier notions. The writer/director is not afraid to toss in a couple of events that might strain credulity -- and then make these both funny and utterly, if oddly, believable.

The family, too, is not shown to be impossibly nasty or as horrible users. Yes, they're "entitled," all right, but they have not lost (not even the rather bitchy mother, played by Karine Teles, below, right) the ability to completely distinguish right from wrong.

How change happens -- to all of these folk, including the sad, de-balled dad of the family -- manages to be funny, moving, and above all real. Muylaert takes a gimlet-eyed look at class divisions, entitlement, and the growing expectations of a coming-into-being middle class, while understanding how difficult this kind of change can really be, and how it first must come from within the individual in order to become anything like a "movement."

The movie leaves you, as it does its characters, in the middle of all this change. But it also leaves you somehow hopeful, even against what appear to be pretty heavy odds. The Second Mother -- from Oscilloscope, in Portuguese with English subtitles, and running 112 minutes -- opens this Friday, August 28, in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) and New York City (at the Angelika Film Center and The Paris Theatre) and from there over the weeks to come in another 35 cities/theaters -- including, on September 25, our own Living Room Theater in Boca Raton. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates.

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