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Movie Review

‘The Second Mother’ turns Brazil upside down

Regina Casé stars as a live-in housekeeper in “The Second Mother.”
Regina Casé stars as a live-in housekeeper in “The Second Mother.” Aline Arruda

With the barbed blitheness and detached acuity of one of Eric Rohmer’s “Moral Tales,” Brazilian director Anna Muylaert’s “The Second Mother” dissects a subtle class struggle in São Paulo. It opens Friday at the Kendall Square.

Its characters refuse to settle into stereotypes, and its resolutions tend more to the perverse than platitudinous. Even the generic English title, “The Second Mother” (in Portuguese it is “Que Horas Ela Volta?” which translates as “What Time Will She Back?”), proves to be pricklier than expected when it comes to identifying who, in fact, the second mother might be.

Val (Regina Casé), live-in housekeeper for an idle, spoiled but condescendingly egalitarian family, seems the likely candidate. Portrayed with bubbly finesse by Casé, Val adds tartness to her submissiveness, mugging her exasperation and amusement whenever she’s out of sight of the complacent household.

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The latter consists of the sad, faded patriarch, Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), a failed painter who inherited a pile of money and now sleeps until 11 a.m.; his wife, Barbara (Karine Teles), a self-important fashionista (“Style is who you are,” she smugly tells a TV interviewer) who works hard at her vapid profession; and their 17-going-on-7-year-old, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), who has been consigned to Val to raise since he was a toddler. Fabinho still enjoys being cuddled in bed by his surrogate mom in uncomfortably oedipal scenes.

Into this serene if hypocritical household comes Val’s estranged daughter, the seemingly bland but ambitious Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who has moved to São Paulo in hopes of going to an architectural institute. Shocked by her mother’s miserable room and her uncomplaining submissiveness, Jéssica sets about exposing and undermining the unacknowledged class system to which Val has resigned herself.

Soon she is unhinging the family like a more genteel version of the tramp in Jean Renoir’s “Boudu Saved From Drowning” (1932). At first she ingratiates herself with her hosts, then turns them against each other, outraging her increasing shocked and apologetic mother.

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Muylaert maintains a low-key approach throughout, allowing household objects — a tacky espresso set, a quart of ice cream, an amateurish painting — to embody the power struggle. A kitchen, a guestroom, and swimming pool become battlegrounds. Though hardly revolutionary, “Mother” subverts conventions — both cinematic and social.

Correction: Because of a reporting mistake, São Paulo was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.