Anna Muylaert’s ‘The Second Mother’ at Aspen Filmfest

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
"The Second Mother" screens Wednesday at Aspen Filmfest.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘The Second Mother’ at Aspen Filmfest

Where: Isis Theater

When: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2:30 p.m.

How much: $15 GA; $15 Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

Brazilian writer-director Anna Muylaert’s “The Second Mother” offers a charming yet penetrating look at the haves and have-nots of her home country.

Actress and TV host Regina Case, sometimes called “Brazil’s Oprah,” stars as Val, the long-serving nanny and live-in housekeeper to a wealthy Sao Paulo family. She has raised the teenage Fabiano (Michel Joelsas) from infancy, forging a stronger maternal bond with him than his cold-hearted birth mother (Karine Teles) and distant father (Lourenco Mutarelli).

Val’s long-established subservient relationship with the family is shaken up when her bright and ambitious daughter, Jessica, played by Camila Mardila, comes to stay with her. Jessica bristles at her mother’s second-class status and calls unwelcome attention to it. She commits seemingly small household transgressions, such as eating Fabiano’s ice cream and staying in the family guest room — rather than the servant’s quarters — when they’re offered to her.

“When they offer you something that is theirs, they are being polite,” Val warns Jessica in the film. “They are sure you are going to say ‘No.’”

Though the Spanish-language film is set in Brazil, this is a universal tale — no doubt as resonant in Sao Paulo as it will be to service-industry folk in resort towns such as Aspen.

“At Sundance, I wasn’t sure people would even understand the story,” she said. “But anywhere it goes, they have second-class citizens.”

In Brazil, Muylaert said, audiences have reacted differently depending on the socio-economic status of the crowd. Jessica’s ambitions to take a college entrance exam often serve as a litmus test.

“If you see it in a poor zone, they clap when she goes to take the exam,” she said. “But when you go to a rich zone in Brazil, people will laugh, saying ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous!’”

The film, which screens Wednesday at Aspen Filmfest, won a special jury prize for Case and Mardila at Sundance and an audience award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Muylaert worked on the project for 19 years as she made other films. The idea sprouted after she had her first son and left her job, opting to stay home to be a full-time mother.

“I wanted to do all the mother’s work; I didn’t want to give it to another person,” she said. “In Brazil that was eccentric, and I started thinking about this nanny character. Because she is given a sacred job, and we don’t value motherhood in our society. And if we don’t value motherhood, we don’t value women.”

As she started developing the story, it brought out the other issues the film tackles, notably classism and the education gap.

Case’s magnetic lead performance is lightly seasoned with inspired touches of comedy. Her ability to bring that dimension to the character is part of what led Muylaert to cast her — she wanted a three-dimensional Val.

“The films I like are the ones where I think about things and I laugh,” she said, citing the Coen brothers as an influence.

The film’s success, ironically, has exposed persistent sexism in the film industry, Muylaert said. Men, she said, have been uneasy and sometimes antagonistic about a woman enjoying such success on the festival circuit. She compares the experience to a pivotal scene in “The Second Mother” where the family reacts harshly to Jessica joining Fabiano in the pool.

“It’s just like Jessica in the pool,” Muylaert said. “I dealt with all of this machismo and things that were difficult to deal with. It’s been a big fight.”

She was heartened to hear that nearly half of the movies in the Aspen Filmfest lineup are directed by women.

“Wow,” she said. “Hopefully we start to have the chance we deserve.”

Oscilloscope Films purchased “The Second Mother” for distribution and it appears to be Brazil’s likely choice for Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration. “The Second Mother” screens at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Isis Theater.