If you want to measure a society's political health, two films from Latin America slyly suggest, look at how it treats the help. Sebastian Silva's gleeful 2009 black comedy, The Maid, drew on his own experience as the cosseted son of a well-to-do Chilean family propped up by its housekeeper. Brazilian filmmaker Anna Muylaert began writing her new film, The Second Mother, two decades ago, when she hired a nanny to care for her first child. It's a quieter, more ruminative comedy, but like Silva, Muylaert is as alive to the comic possibilities of liberal guilt as she is to the plight of the ill-paid maids who quietly run innumerable households all around the Americas.
The second mother in Muylaert's film is Val (a very good Regina Casé), a middle-aged housekeeper who keeps everyone on track in the home of an affluent Sao Paulo family. She cooks, cleans and openly dotes on their son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), a spoiled wastrel who still runs to Val to get his hair stroked whenever he's crossed. If Val is the help, her employers are the helpless. Clearing the table is beyond them, and their friends are no better: At a birthday party for her employer, Dona Barbara (Karine Teles), we follow Val as she goes around with a tray of appetizers, receiving not a word of thanks. A willing accomplice to this lopsided arrangement, Val fetches and carries without complaint, pausing only to grab bits of power here and there that serve only to keep her locked in place.
Smugly playing the enlightened employer, Dona Barbara takes a fleeting interest in Val's life only when it costs her nothing. She talks a good game, but to fully understand the warped political economy of this household, you have to follow the camera as it trails after Val like a faithful dog, lingering on the kitchen door that both connects and cordons off her domain with the family's, or on the hallway that leads to the guest room, significantly more lavish than Val's cramped quarters.
There, a Disruptive Force has set up operations that will trigger a rising tide of violations of the unwritten code that has made this well-oiled system of servitude work well past its sell-by date. Val's estranged daughter, Jessica (Camila Mardila), has blown into town to take her entrance exam at a prestigious local university, where — to the family's barely suppressed disbelief — she plans to study architecture. A cocksure beauty bearing a massive grudge against her mother, Jessica is also the distillation of a new generation of Brazilians unbound by the archaic hierarchies that hold her mother hostage. Aghast at Val's collusion with her masters, she sets about breaking every rule in the house, while Val, appalled in her turn, strives unbidden to restore the status quo. In the ensuing chaos, the patriarch (Lourenco Mutarelli), a trust-fund baby with more money than sense, floors Jessica with a bizarre proposition that quickens the pace into farce, plunging the entire house into a crisis that will bring down its ancien regime.
There may or may not be metaphor at work here regarding Brazil's relationship with its autocratic past. Either way, it's hard to begrudge this warmhearted movie its crowd-pleasing ending, which bestows on every player the gift of a new beginning. One way or another, everyone gets out of jail, but no liberation is more gratifying than that of hard-working Val, who opens her eyes at last and takes her cue from a daughter pugnacious enough to insist on her own destiny.