When You Can’t Have It All - A Film Review of "The Second Mother"

A Commentary & Review of THE SECOND MOTHER
By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director

A Film by Anna Muylaert
Drama - Rated-R - 110 min. - from Brazil (in Portuguese, with English subtitles). 
Note: This film was our selection for October 2015.

In the July/August cover story of The Atlantic, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter defended her choice to step down from a high-level career at the U.S. State Department to teach at Princeton and “spend more time with the children.”  

In the debate over career and family, and what is sometimes dubbed the “myth of work-life balance,” she came to a certain realization for herself that was received as unsettling by many others. Namely, you can’t have it all, no matter how worthy basic feminist principles may be. “Not today,” she writes, “not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

If this is true in our relatively stable culture and economy, consider Brazil; where a report just last month reported Latin America’s largest economy was dragged down further into recession by deterioration of both domestic and external demand, continued corruption scandals, and consumer confidence levels at record lows.  

It is within the context of such social and economic upheaval that writer/director Anna Muylaert gets personal with a simple story exposing the human costs with the last remaining vestiges of a class system that is all but gone. (See Filmmaker’s Statement that follows.) Where one film critic dubbed THE SECOND MOTHER “ is a soap opera with a social conscience,” I call it Downton Abbey in Portuguese

Val is the loving and lovable maternal surrogate and domestic backbone of an affluent Sao Paulo household that maintains a vestige of Brazil’s colonial past through a combination of pretension and dysfunction. 

Dr. Carlos, the man of the house, is anything but. At one point he explains to Val’s daughter, his father worked very hard so he could do nothing. Either through a medication regimen that remains unclear or induced indolence from inherited wealth, he can barely muster his commands to have his plate removed from the dining table or ask Val to fetch his ice cream.

Dona Barbara is the fashionable professional, sometime wife and occasional mother to their son, Fabinho. Early on in the film, when she is being interviewed in their posh home in front of TV cameras, an adoring reporter calls her a “trendsetter,” with the kind of style other women seek to follow. “Style isn’t something one can just make up,” she replies. “It’s about knowing yourself, accepting yourself, being who you are.”  All well and good, if only that were true, in her case.

Instead, it is Val’s estranged daughter Jessica, who will intrude and disrupt the status quo with her own self-assurance and refusal to be put in her place in a household that is all about knowing your proper place. She has come to town to study and pass her exams to enter the university. She want’s to be an architect. Why? As a means of constructing social change, she says.

Without even flinching, the men in the household are drawn by her strong-willed allure. Her mother is apologetic, shocked and dismayed. And Dona Barbara’s insecurities, resentment and subsequent acts of petty retaliations will quickly surface; including the banishment of her own son to the ends of the earth. 

But Jessica too is flawed, with an unresolved secret only a mother can first barely withstand, then joyfully embrace.  

A SECOND MOTHER is typical of those quiet films where nothing terribly startling occurs, as you watch a fairly predictable storyline once more unfold. But it will also likely leave you thinking about these characters the next day. And therein lies the strength of these small cinematic gems. There is the skill of fine actors like one of Brazil’s best, Regina Casé. And then there is this filmmaker’s camera lens deliberately framing scenes and settings that can suggest impressions and interpretations that are thankfully left open-ended.

Three such images reoccur in this film: First, there is the long, dark, bare downstairs hallway; behind which there are different quarters for different residents and all they represent. 

Then there is the kitchen, where boundaries get crossed, because it is the unavoidable common intersection. (In fact, the screenplay was adapted from an earlier screenplay Muylaert called, “The Kitchen Door.”)  

And finally there is the sparkling blue swimming pool. Cool, refreshing, inviting, forbidden.  There is the exuberance of youth in one slow-mo scene that cannot be squelched, only drained. And later, even in the shallows of a nearly emptied pool, Val will find herself in a place of liberation; as if the Red Sea waters itself had parted. 

The debate over work-life balance suggests a false distinction between two opposites with which one must contend and somehow accommodate as best you can; rather than an integration of both, in both. It’s a little like the notion one is either rich or poor.  

But Val, the domestic worker, seems to have discovered you can’t have it all. One must choose. And so the film ends with a bright face beaming over the choice she has made. And it leaves her former bosses to discover for their selves what constitutes affluence or impoverishment.  jb


THE SECOND MOTHER is a film about a set of social structures which have been in place in Brazilian culture since colonial times, and which continue to affect the country’s emotional architecture to this very day.  I started writing this script twenty years ago, when I had my first child and realized how noble a job it is to bring up a child.

At the same time, I also noticed the extent to which this task is devalued by Brazilian culture. More often than not, rather than looking after your own baby you hired a live-in nanny and outsourced most of the work that was considered tedious or draining. What we sometimes forget is that those nannies very often leave their own children with someone else in order to fit into that scheme. THE SECOND MOTHER should be seen as both a social criticism, and as more. Its direct approach is neither to judge, nor glamorize the characters and their actions.