Last night I saw The Second Mother, which is Brazil's entry for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
I have had a soft spot for Brazil ever since 2006, after attending a wedding in Recife. The people were extremely friendly, and the wedding was amazing.
That trip included visits to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as well, but it was in the less familiar Recife that I encountered Brazil's strict class boundaries. As I've written before, part of the Recife experience included an outstanding tour of the region. Our tour guide Gilbert was brilliant, urbane, and informed. But he was also just "the help," who would never dare to sit at the same table as the tour guests.
Class distinctions exist in every culture, of course -- even (especially?) in societies that pretend that they do not. But for me seeing these distinctions so bluntly enforced was a melancholy experience.
The Second Mother is all about the abiding power of such distinctions. Val (Regina Casé) is a beloved nanny for a wealthy family in São Paulo. In many ways she is more of a mother to teenager Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) than Fabino's own mother Barbara (Karine Teles). As Dana Stevens notes in her review, such maternal affection from nannies is common in Brazil.
But Val has her own daughter, Jéssica. Jéssica (Camila Márdila) has grown up in the impoverished northeast of the country, probably somewhere near Recife. Val left her in the care of others in order to land a better job in São Paulo, and has not seen Jéssica for a decade. Val sends money home and loves her daughter; this is not abandonment, it's seeking economic opportunity even at great emotional cost.
Suddenly Jéssica appears, in order to take an entrance exam. Val is a live-in nanny, so Jéssica moves in too. The younger woman immediately flouts the upstairs/downstairs dynamic in the house, arguing that the invisible class lines within it are social constructs and not natural laws.
Val is horrified at her daughter's impetuousness. The tension of the film -- which resolves itself a bit too easily in the end -- is about whether/when/how/and how much to challenge social norms. This is an abiding question in all cultures, electrified in The Second Mother through outstanding acting and a sympathetic eye.