'The Second Mother' ('Que horas ela volta?'): Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Beautifully written and acted with precision, this film's a winner

Brazil's Regina Case ('Me You Them') delivers a stunning performance as a housekeeper whose daughter upsets the status quo in Anna Muylaert's riveting drama.

The tranquil and orderly existence of a live-in housekeeper who’s humbly served a middle-class Brazilian family for over a decade is completely turned upside-down when her estranged daughter arrives in Sao Paulo to apply for university there in The Second Mother (Que horas ela volta?). This densely layered yet almost fast paced-feeling drama, from writer-director Anna Muylaert (Collect Call), passes not only the Bechdel test with flying colors but dissects with both chilling precision and humor such matters as class differences, real mothers vs. caretakers and whether privilege and one's own station are things that can be questioned or changed. After a Sundance/Berlin double dip, this should see interest from festivals and smart distributors from all four corners of the globe.

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Val (Regina Case), rarely seen without something to clean or be cleaned in her hands, has been with the family of Dr. Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), who inherited his wealth, and his hard-working, self-made wife, Barbara (Karine Teles), for so long that their handsome son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) considers Val more like another mother than as a housekeeper with added nanny duties. When the film opens, it’s the year he’ll be doing his university entrance exams, but that doesn’t mean that Fabinho has stopped crawling into Val’s bed for a cuddle every now and then.

The warm and affectionate rapport between Val and the family’s only child stands in stark contrast to that of Fabinho’s with his biological parents, with the three of them preferring to interact with their phones instead of each other during their shared dinners. Indeed, all three seem friendlier to their housekeeper, who over the years has become the silent and almost invisible motor that keeps the entire household running (the other members of the household staff, which include another domestic help, a chauffeur and a gardener, don’t get half the esteem from their employers, though interestingly this has the effect of making Val even more self-effacing).

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Taking care of a family practically non-stop while also living under their roof means Val has had to make certain sacrifices, which include having left her own daughter, Jessica (Camila Mardila), with Jessica’s father, who lives on the other side of the country and with whom Val’s not on speaking terms. As a consequence, she hasn’t seen her own daughter in over 10 years, so she’s surprised to receive a call from her and even more surprised to learn she’s planning to stay with her when she’ll be in town for her own university entrance exams. But the reunion of mother and daughter is far from a happy one, as Jessica becomes something of a fixation for the men in the house (shades of Teorema) and Val is appalled with the liberties a housekeeper’s daughter thinks nothing of taking in the home of the people that pay her mother her salary and that have very kindly allowed her to let her daughter stay there for a couple of days.

A former critic who has also co-written films made by others, including The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (the breakout film of young Joelsas) and the recent Praia Do Futuro, Muylaert does a deft job here of plotting her story and setting up her characters and their predicaments in ways that immediately invite reflection. The most natural-feeling mother-child bond, for example, is that between a spoiled young man and a working-class woman who’s not only paid to look after him but who has left her own child behind in order to fully dedicate herself to her job. The English title is well-chosen -- the original Portuguese means something like When Is She Coming Back? -- and can be applied to many relationships, including Barbara’s with Val, Barbara’s with her own son, for whom more often than not she seems to not be the primary mother, and also to Jessica’s connection with a character whose existence is only revealed quite late into the film.

The beauty of the ingeniously constructed screenplay is that it feels like a story-driven narrative while it explores a lot of complex ideas just underneath the surface, and the way Muylaert handles the feelings of Carlos and Fabinho for Jessica shows a deft hand at avoiding cliches in inventive ways that nonetheless feel entirely organic. Beyond familial and familial-seeming bonds, the film investigates subjects such as propriety, deference, employer/employee relationships and the complex issue of privilege and the division between the classes, with the arrival of Jessica completely upsetting a status quo that had been the norm at the house for years. On Jessica’s first morning there, circumstances force Barbara to have to make breakfast for their guest, who a day earlier had already managed to maneuver her way from a mattress on the floor of her mother’s basement bedroom to the mansion’s immense guest room with its en-suite bathroom.

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Jessica’s decision to apply to the county’s most competitive university for architecture in Sao Paulo not only sparks an almost inappropriate interest in her from Dr. Carlos but also helps underline the importance of education in upward mobility, a concept that seems entirely alien to Val, who tells her daughter that people will offer her things because they know she’s expected to decline them. But to her mother’s frustration (and more than occasional amusement for the audience), the strong-willed young woman never says no to anything that’s offered to her and even goes as far as to suggest what she’d like. 

One of Brazil’s best and most beloved actresses, Case here makes a welcome return to features after years in TV. Though the film is very much an ensemble piece, and all the actors are terrific, she’s definitely the standout here. Her Val demonstrates so much love and works so constantly and so hard that’s it’s impossible not to like her, even though in practice, she’s abandoned her own daughter and, when reunited, has to come to the realization that she’s a stranger with a completely different set of ideas and values.

The good-looking film’s main question thus becomes whether Val wants to finally be Jessica’s mother and assert her maternal authority to set her right or whether she accepts their differences and lets her adult daughter go her own way. Like elsewhere in the film, the ending (spoiler!) finally finds a workable entente between two extremes, with the finale utterly heart-warming without feeling like Muylaert betrayed who these characters really are and what they stand for.

Production companies: Gullane Filmes, Africa Filmes, Globo Filmes

Cast: Regina Case, Michel Joelsas, Camila Mardila, Karine Teles, Lourenco Mutarelli

Writer-Director: Anna Muylaert

Producers: Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane, Debora Ivanov, Anna Muylaert

Co-producers: Caio Gullane, Claudia Buschel

Director of photography: Barbara Alvarez

Production designer: Marcos Pedroso, Thales Junqueira

Costume designer: Andre Simonetti, Claudia Kopke

Editor: Karen Harley

Music: Fabio Trummer

Casting: Patricia Faria

Sales: The Match Factory


No rating, 110 minutes