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Review: “Que Horas Ela Volta?”

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The opening shot of Que Horas Ela Volta? (which literally means “What time does she get back?” though the title is “The Second Mother” in English) tells a lot about this intimate, socially incisive Brazilian movie.

It features a swimming pool flanked with boy’s toys, the peaceful sound of the blue water interrupted by an unpleasant construction-like noise – perhaps foreshadowing the unsettling event that will come. A woman is seen playing affectionately with a young boy, and by the way she’s dressed, the way she talks, the things she says, I know who she is immediately: his nanny.

While the boy is distracted with something else, she talks on the phone to her own daughter, who is far away and she can’t be with. The boy returns and she puts her full attention back on him. He asks her, “What time does she get back,” referring to his mother; and the nanny says she doesn’t know.

We find out later that the nanny’s daughter is asking the same question, also being taken care of by someone else, while the mother is away working. The German title of the film, “Der Sommer mit Mamã,” misses this meaning entirely, and is less poignant and also less subtle, instead referring to the daughter’s visit to her mom the nanny, the “unsettling event” that will take up most of the movie.

"The Second Mother" (2015 film) poster. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
“The Second Mother” (2015 film) poster. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Played brilliantly by renowned Brazilian actress – and habitual TV show interviewer of the average Jane and Joe – Regina Casé, the character of Val is more than a nanny. Those of us who grew up in Brazil all know this character in our actual lives, probably from the crib, as did our mothers and grandmothers before us.

You didn’t have to be rich to be able to employ a domestic worker full-time, although new laws finally demanding that they get decent rights and wages might change that (even Val has had a caretaker for her daughter, though it’s unclear in the movie whether or not she’s a relative). They were typically women coming in search of work from the countryside, arid northeast or suburbs (quite different in Brazil from the typical green-lawn, cookie-cutter American “suburbia”).

They’ve been nothing less than the surrogate mothers standing in for our career-making mothers, the surrogate children of the elderly whose career-making children are too busy to care for them, the spoon-feeders, wound-healers, water-fetchers, restaurant-grade cooks except in a kitchen that never closes and never gets one a “top chef” award. Some of them do a couple of these, others do it all.

It’s common for them to live with their bosses like Val.

Some get to go home to see their own families each week, like Val’s younger colleague in the movie, others not so much. Val hasn’t seen her daughter Jéssica (in an understated performance by Camila Márdila) in more than 10 years when the girl, now a young adult, announces that she’s coming to São Paulo to take the mandatory university entrance exam, the dreaded and decisive vestibular. For a very prestigious university, nothing less, as she has high ambitious for becoming an architect.

Jéssica’s outspoken intelligence and self-confidence create both discomfort and fascination at the bosses’ house, where she is brought while she hasn’t found a place to live more permanently in the metropolis.

The daughter is dismayed to find out that her mother lives with the family she works for, squeezed into a room in the back of the house, barred by an unspoken contract from sitting at the same table as her bosses, swimming in the pool, partaking in their parties or sharing in their creative pursuits. Val would come home with presents for her daughter and pretend she was doing better than she was, not revealing her actual condition.

Val’s boss, the successful fashion entrepreneur Bárbara (Karine Teles, who hits the bull’s eye as the faux-loving, selfish, condescending patroa), tells Val she’s “practically part of the family.” Without Val’s sacrifices and dedication taking care of her kid – who seems to consider Val more his mother than his actual mother – she couldn’t have built her career.

But Val, in what is the norm for domestic workers in Brazil, is treated as a one-dimensional figure whose life outside the bosses’ home is not supposed to come in, whose dreams get checked in at the door and eventually buried underneath a lifetime of servitude without much of a chance to advance herself. What happens when her outside life barges in, in the shape of her “subversive” daughter, might fundamentally alter things, however.

It’s a good movie the whole way through, and I recommend it to Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike, because I think we can all learn something. It helps to watch ourselves on screen, gives us a perspective we probably couldn’t have gotten from the inside, especially with something that is unfortunately second nature to generations of spoon-fed Brazilians.

To foreigners, it gives a closer look into the life of a Brazilian family and the relationship with domestic workers, something they may or may not be familiar with but may be able to relate to somehow from different experiences in life. The only element that I see as cheapening the plot is the interest the father of the family develops in the girl; it’s unnecessary for a movie already so full of emotional nuances and smart social commentary. The female characters definitely carry the film, which also has a female director, Anna Muylaert. The movie won awards at the latest Berlin Film Festival.

Que Horas Ela Volta? is indeed realistic and also timely, as Brazilian society is poised to undergo changes related to this domestic worker culture that dates back to times of slavery.

More than 100 years after abolition, in-house servants were still making ridiculous wages and lacking any protection as employees before the recent reforms came along. Families that have benefited from their services for decades, or single adults who don’t know how to fry an egg or dust a shelf because of such dependency growing up, are complaining that they can no longer afford their services and so their lives will become quite difficult.

Domestic workers will lose their jobs and have to channel their skills into something else. However, I find that these growing pains are necessary to turn Brazilian society into a more mature, equitable one. Perhaps this will pave the way for more responsibility within families and for the home (there have already been important advances in maternity leave), and encourage reforms towards proper public education so that more ladies from the peripheries can feel they can dream much higher than changing the little kid’s diapers and then the grandpa’s diapers in the same family 50 years later.

Que Horas Ela Volta [“Der Sommer mit Mamã,” or “The Second Mother”] is playing in its original Portuguese at Cinémathèque Leipzig at die naTo, on Oct. 5th, 6th and 19th at 10 p.m., and Oct. 11th at 7 p.m. with German subtitles; and Oct 14th at 8 p.m. with English subtitles.

An aspiring social scientist and former newspaper reporter, an avid eater, a pseudo-philosopher and poet, an occasion-propelled singer, a semi-professional socializer, a movie addict, a Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, but with special attention to travel, entertainment and lifestyle.

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