We’ve all heard of humiliation comedy, but is there such a thing as humiliation drama? The new Brazilian film The Second Mother certainly makes a case for it. (The film is Brazil’s official submission for the Academy Awards this year, and it probably has a strong chance at a nomination.) It follows Val (Regina Casé), a longtime maid for a posh São Paulo family. She’s a boisterous, loving woman who dotes over her boss’s teenage son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), doing everything from cleaning the overgrown kid’s ears to helping save his pot stash when his mother tries to throw it away. The laziness of privilege is everywhere, like a poison: When the languid, weak-kneed man of the house, Juan Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), wants a soda from the fridge at lunch, Val goes and gets it for him, even though it’s clearly just a few feet away. (Director Anna Muylaert uses a lot of static shots that are not showoff-y, but elegant and functional; they cleverly depict the mastery Val has over the film’s spaces.)
Val is fine when she remains largely invisible. But the tolerance of her boss Barbara (Karine Teles), Fabinho’s mother and Juan Carlos’s wife, runs skin-deep and lifts easily to reveal a smug passive aggression. When Val gifts her what she feels is a fancy set of coffee cups, Barbara makes outward protestations of gratitude — but she’s horrified when Val breaks out the set during a chichi dinner party. Things start to unravel when Val’s own teenage daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila), whom she hasn’t seen in ten years, comes to stay with her in São Paulo, to spend a week preparing to take a university exam. Jessica is horrified to learn that she has to stay with her mom in the back room of this family’s huge house. But being a brash, beautiful young girl, Jessica has soon convinced Juan Carlos, the beaten-down patriarch, to let her have the spacious guest room.
The Second Mother charts the many humiliations set in motion by Jessica’s stay — both through minute interactions and broader realizations. Val is horrified by the girl’s refusal to bow down to her bosses’ authority, even though that authority is based not on service, but on degradation and classism. (Example: Val is mortified one morning to discover Jessica sitting at the kitchen breakfast table, which also happens to be the only table there is in the kitchen. “The maid’s daughter sitting at the bosses’ table?” she asks, irate. “They’re not my bosses, Val!” is her daughter’s very matter-of-fact response.) Juan Carlos clearly takes a liking to this ambitious young girl, who in turn reminds him of his own failed dreams, but beneath his kindness lie other expectations. Even Fabinho begins to understand that Val’s affection for him, while genuine, is also essentially part of a professional service she provides. Meanwhile, Barbara stews in resentment over this girl’s presence, as it slowly dawns that she herself has very little control over her own house; Val has made the place run for years.
Director Muylaert (who reportedly worked on the script in collaboration with Casé) keeps her pacing brisk and surprisingly suspenseful, even though this is a film built on subtle transgressions. She focuses our attention in such a way that even the smallest moment — the wrong person taking a bite out of the wrong carton of ice cream, say — can stand out as an embarrassing indiscretion, as cringe-worthy in its own way as anything you might find in Meet the Parents or The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But as noted, this is not a comedy. It’s a drama, and it smartly uses its little moments of humiliation to open our eyes to a world of delicate, but deep, injustice.