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Upstairs, Downstairs

'The Second Mother' probes the class divide in Brazil

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THE HELP The arrival of Jessica (Camila Márdila), left, roils the waters of a tranquil, upper-class Brazilian home.
  • THE HELP The arrival of Jessica (Camila Márdila), left, roils the waters of a tranquil, upper-class Brazilian home.

The Second Mother is set in the no-man's land of South America's class struggle. When you consider how many films are made by people who have personal assistants, it's particularly interesting to watch the acute tenderness and anger of a movie like The Second Mother.

The Portuguese title of the film is When Will She Be Back?—which could be considered a lady of the manor's stern inquiry or a child's cry. The film is set in São Paulo where water shortages bring significance to a subplot about the draining of a family swimming pool. Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), a bald, bearded old idler in an Elvis Costello T-shirt, is the head of a well-off family. He used to paint pictures, but now they're wrapped in plastic in his studio. His hard-to-stomach wife, Barbara (Karine Teles), is a snobby social dynamo.

Central to the house, but rarely noticed, is Val (Regina Casé), from the poor northeast of Brazil. Val serves meals and has nannied the adolescent Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) since his boyhood. Val and Fabinho have a tender relationship, with a lot of physical contact—they secretly share a bed sometimes. But Val's growing a bit too old to cuddle and is starting to fret about being a virgin.

Into this ménage comes an intruder: Val's lithe daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), strong-willed and more than a little angry. The arrival causes ripples in all directions.

Shot in middle distance, this film isn't just democratic in theme, it's democratic in style. Director Anna Muylaert is dry, tough, smart and funny. We're never quite sure who the film is about. Jessica's right about her mom: she is a cringer, living like a serf. And Val is right about Jessica: she's a pain-in-the-neck guest. It's a mark of Muylaert's control of the smaller details that she won't let the family's golden retriever steal a single scene, no matter how much the smiling dog tries.

'The Second Mother' is playing at the Christopher B. Smith Film Center, 118 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.454.5813.

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