Que Horas Ela Volta?
Here in America, migrant workers mostly make the news as political footballs that cynical populists can use to whip up xenophobic support. In all the commotion it’s easy to lose sight of the real human lives of these workers. What must it take for a mother to leave her children and travel hundreds or thousands of miles to find work so she can send money back home to raise them? What effect does it have on those children left behind, asking their caretakers, “when is she coming back?”
It’s not just a question about American immigrants. Poor workers within Brazil travel across the enormous country to find work, and it’s just as fraught with class issues as it is here. Anna Muylaert’s Que Horas Ela Volta? — subtitled in English as The Second Mother — is a meticulously observed look into this dynamic.
Val (Regina Casé) is from the state of Pernambuco, though a ways out from the glamor of Recife. She works as a live-in maid, cook, and nanny for a wealthy São Paulo family. She’s practically raised young Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) for Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) and Dona Barbara (Karine Teles), while her daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila) remains back in the Northeast. Val used to visit home sometimes when she first came, but she hasn’t been back in ten years; the longer she stayed away, the harder it became to go home again.
But everything Val sacrificed was in order to give Jéssica whatever she needed. The schools in Pernambuco aren’t great, but Jéssica is a straight-A student with an interest in architecture and urban planning as instruments of social change. She’s coming to São Paulo to take the entrance exams for FAU: the highly-competitive Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo at the Universidade de São Paulo.
From the moment Jéssica arrives, she bristles at the code of conduct Val considers all but inborn. As a domestic worker, her job is to be unobtrusive and supportive of her employers, putting her own needs second. It’s always “Dona Barbara” and “Dr. Carlos”; never just “Barbara” or “Carlos”. That ice cream is for Fabinho; this is the one we can eat, and not at the family’s table. And don’t even look at the pool. Jéssica chafes at her mother’s restrictions; “I don’t think I’m better,” she says, “I just don’t think I’m worse.”
The distance between Val and Jéssica is mirrored in the relationship between Barbara and Fabinho. Barbara may live in the same house as her son, but Val did more to raise him. The affection she couldn’t give to Jéssica showers on Fabinho. Barbara is fine with Val as long as she knows her place, but when Jéssica shows up and acts like a regular person instead of a poor worker from the sticks, she’s less than pleased.
Every interaction is fraught with the baggage of this class imbalance. Ethnicity and money inform everything we see. Muylaert and Casé are warm and generous storytellers, building characters who conflict with each other, but never turning them into malicious caricatures. Even the worst behaviors we see come from human frailties. There is plenty of compassion here to go around, and to give us some insight into lives we may never otherwise consider.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.