Between the political crisis and an economic downturn, Brazil is going through a rough patch. It's easy to forget that the gears of change are slowly and quietly continuing to grind away. The film "The Second Mother," or "Que Horas Ela Volta?" (What Time Does She Get Home?) helps remind audiences of this important reality that Brazil is changing for the better, and may not always be held hostage to its history.
The film - this year's Academy Awards submission from Brazil - follows Val, a live-in maid from the Northeast working for a wealthy family in São Paulo. It's "Neighboring Sounds" meets "The Help," though I suspect with a black protagonist, it would have been an entirely different movie altogether. The movie is out now in Brazilian theaters and is showing in a limited release in the United States.
Regina Casé plays Val, and she's perfect. Having honed her comedic skills over decades and dedicated part of her career to spotlighting Brazil's poor and working classes, she truly incarnates the role and beautifully depicts a position that has evolved as a remnant of slavery.
While this is a very Brazilian story, it's also a fundamentally Latin American story. It brings to mind women who leave their children in another region or in a whole other country, from Paraguayan domestics in Argentina to Central American maids in the United States. Brazilians and anyone who has spent significant time in Brazil likely knows a Val, and will recognize her mannerisms and personality in Casé's character.
Directed by a woman, Anna Muylaert, the movie also touches on universal issues like motherhood, feminism, the generation gap, and social class divisions. It's this last piece - the deep social divide and the daily indignities Val faces - that are so uncomfortable to witness that I was squirming in my seat.
Expertly filmed, the movie makes the audience feel like it's in Val's shoes, with narrow shots of hallways and doorways, giving one a very keen sense of both the physical and social boundaries within a single home. It's only when Val's daughter, Jéssica, shows up, that we see the realm the family lives in, rather than the confines of the kitchen or the claustrophobic bedroom where Val sleeps. Jéssica refuses to abide by the unspoken rules, taking up in the guest room, eating in the dining room, and most controversially, swimming in the pool.
"A person is born knowing her position," Val scolds her daughter. "When they offer you something of theirs, they're being polite. They know we'll say no."
Jéssica represents a new generation of Brazilians and the new middle class, breaking boundaries (literally), getting a higher education, and flouting norms and expectations for what a person of little means can do with her life.
Still, the treatment that Bárbara, the woman of the house, gives Val and her daughter, seem unfortunately realistic. "You're nearly family!" Bárbara tells Val at one point, sandwiched between growing humiliations to which she subjects her. The Twitter account A Minha Empregada (My Maid) reveals precisely these types of views and treatment of maids.
A porra da empregada ta passando aspirador no corredor e me acordou— Dri (@DriChiarelli) July 27, 2015
What the film hints at but ultimately doesn't show is that the landscape for domestic work in Brazil is changing dramatically.
Brazil has close to 7 million domestic workers, more than any country in the world. But the rules of the game changed in 2013, when a constitutional amendment passed that gave a host of rights to domestic workers, including a minimum wage, a maximum number of working hours, overtime, lunch breaks, and social security. Plus, in recent years, some women have been leaving the profession to get an education or change careers. With salaries rising, it's no longer as common that maids live with families, as women opt to commute. And because workers are more expensive to hire, some families no longer have full-time maids. And in São Paulo, some upper-class homes are no longer built with maid's quarters.
Still, it's precisely this hope for change that makes the movie work, ending with a sense of redemption.
At one point in the film, Jéssica announces her plan to go to university to study architecture at one of the best schools in the country. Bárabara lifts an eyebrow and in a voice dripping with condescension and a hint of resentment, says: "See? Our country really is changing."