A few years after publishing The Sound and the Fury in 1929, William Faulkner wrote an appendix to the novel laying out a few biographical notes on its main characters. He starts out with the ancestors who built Yoknapatawpha, moves on to the members of the Compson family and finishes with the cast of servants: “These others were not Compsons. They were black.” Three lines each describe TP, Frony and Luster, and then finally about the housekeeper Dilsey nothing is said, ending only with “They endured.” This is rather interesting because Dilsey occupies a middle ground between servants and the family, being the sort of maid who’s been around so long that she’s “practically family,” raising the children as her own, refusing to leave when her pay is cut and indeed enduring in the face of the Compsons’ decay, while standing as the moral center for the book.
Now jump about a hundred years forward and consider Val, the housekeeper at the center of The Second Mother, the Brazilian pick for this year’s Academy Awards (screening at Cornell Cinema on February 25 and 28). Val has also been around long enough to be considered family. She raises Fabinho as her own (having left her own daughter back with her father in order to migrate to São Paulo and get this job) while his feeble bourgeois parents can’t even manage to open the fridge to grab their drinks. She spends part of her income buying her employer a birthday gift which is quickly dismissed as second-rate. She too stands as sort of moral center in the face of a (morally, if not financially) decaying family.
But this is modern day São Paulo and while hundred-years old social structures inexplicably endure, times are a-changin’. So when Val’s daughter Jessica comes to visit in order to apply for college (the best college in the country, one that she has no business applying to as Val’s patrons seem to imply), the hypocrisy and inequality of the whole arrangement is exposed. Jessica is well-received by the family at first, especially by the two males who court her probably more conspicuously than they should. But when she starts to question things like the fact that her mother is left to a small room in the back of the house with poor ventilation while a spacious guest room sits empty, or why the “good ice-cream” is Fabinho’s only and can’t be touched by anyone else, then, she becomes an issue.
In a very illustrative sequence, Jessica is enticed by Fabinho and his friends who are playing at the pool to dive in and play with them. Ignoring her mother’s cries that that’s no place for her she strips and goes for it. Later the family’s mother, who watched the whole thing from her balcony orders the pool to be emptied and cleaned, for she claims to have felt the “smell of mice” coming from it. The pool plays an important role in the film, appearing later in the final shot and serving as the main symbol for the divide between classes that are generally masked.
The Second Mother can sometimes play out as a rather didactic class-struggle movie but, in general, I believe it succeeds in capturing the already mentioned divide while also keeping its heart. Anna Mulayert, the writer and director is no Faulkner and so one shouldn’t expect anything of epic scale or an avant-garde approach to the storytelling but she has a sensibility that is mostly lacking in commercial cinema. It is in line with a few other recent Brazilian films, like Central Station, City of God and Neighboring Sounds, which don’t shy away from showing the crude realities of contemporary life while also managing to tell a good story.
The Second Mother will be shown at Cornell Cinema on Feb. 25 and 28.
Bruno Costelini is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.