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Maid to Order: Scenes of Class Struggle in the Household

Opening in New York and Los Angeles on August 28th and nationally a few days later (screening information is at oscilloscope.net), the Brazilian film “A Second Mother” is not the first I have seen that features a domestic servant as a lead character but it is one that joins a short list of those that are true works of art as opposed to something like “The Butler” that work only as melodrama and fitfully at best.

Set in Sao Paulo, it stars veteran actress Regina Casé as Val, a sixtyish woman who has worked for a wealthy family for more than a decade and who is like a “second mother” to teenaged son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), an amiable pot-smoking slacker. Val is one of those maids who are often referred to as “one of the family” but who knows her place. She is capable of scolding Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), the bald and bearded owner of a sprawling modern-looking house with a swimming pool, for raiding the refrigerator but would not dream of sitting at the kitchen table with him and his family. Class lines are sharply delineated in the household even if the rules are not posted on a bulletin board. Along with the chauffeur and another maid, Val is grateful for steady work and kindness of her boss but knows her place. When she buys a coffee serving set for Barbara (Karine Teles), the woman of the house who lives a life reminiscent of Bravo TV’s tacky housewives series, she is reprimanded for serving guests with it at Barbara’s birthday party. Don’t use that one, she is told, use the Swedish set instead. In that brief exchange, director Anna Muylaert conveys an unequal relationship that a sociologist might have taken ten thousand words to describe.

This cozy but socially constrained relationship between master and servant is disrupted by the appearance of Val’s daughter Jessica who has come to Sao Paulo to apply to a local university where she hopes to study architecture. Carlos and Barbara have agreed to allow Jessica to stay in Val’s room but the daughter has not been raised to easily accept social distinctions. When given a tour of the house on her first day there, she sizes up a guest room and announces that it would be a great room for her to take over, much to her mother’s chagrin. Since Carlos is impressed with Jessica’s knowledge of the arts and her self-assurance, he is much more willing to let her have her way, not just on taking over the guest room but on practically any other matter that blurs the lines between master and servant’s daughter. Val, who is stuck in the middle of shifting class lines, keeps insisting to Jessica that she keeps within the boundaries of their class but Jessica, who has evidently been educated by Marxists in her high school in the countryside, is having none of that.

Within the parameters of the five leading characters, you are seeing an ensemble performance of the highest order. The conflict between Jessica and her mother is mirrored by the loving relationship between Val and Fabinho who in many ways is not only less socially ambitious than Jessica but less capable of achieving at the level expected of a scion of the bourgeoisie. When Jessica scores high on the entrance exams at the local university, Fabinho fails to make the grade.

While the film does not try to comment politically on class relations in Brazil, it is shrewdly perceptive about a practically universal condition in households that rely on domestic servants who are “part of the family” while wearing invisible chains. If you are one of the fortunate few who grew up in the USA or Britain to have had a maid that treated you as if you were their own child, this skillfully directed, written and acted film will make you reflect on what hidden injuries of class lurked in the background.

As stated above, “A Second Mother” joins two other films about domestic servants that are a cut above. Available on Netflix streaming, the 2013 “Ilo Ilo” is also a “second mother” story about a Filipino maid who has come to work for a Chinese family in Singapore and who develops a loving relationship with her employer’s young son. I would refer you to my CounterPunch review from last October:

When Teresa arrives at the Leng household, she is shocked by the behavior of their 10-year-old son Jiale who the parents describe as “naughty”. That would be like describing Hurricane Sandy as windy. Jiale is a lout of biblical proportions, defying Teresa’s every stricture handed down from her employers and insulting her mercilessly–“your hair stinks” is his favorite insult. Like many Filipina women, Teresa does not put up with such nonsense and begins knocking some sense into him from day one. Despite Jiale’s thuggish behavior, she finds a way to win him to her side, mostly as a result of her honesty and her obvious affection for him. If you’ve seen and enjoyed (it is quite a good film) “Nanny McPhee”, you’ll like “Ilo Ilo”. But in addition to the comic scenes involving maid and ward, the more affecting parts of the film focus on mother and father’s attempt to survive the economic disaster of 1997. Husband Hwee Leng loses his sales job and his stock portfolio goes belly up all in the same month. Afraid to tell his wife that he has lost his job and is working as a security guard, he keeps it a secret. She in turn feels that the earth is opening up beneath her. As so many others facing an uncertain future, she signs up for a training course on “how to realize your hopes” by a shady motivational speaker, who is arrested before the class begins. The film is humanistic in a way that Hollywood no longer can convey in an industry catering to our basest instincts.

Unlike the other two films, there is not the slightest hint of cross-class bonding and you wouldn’t expect anything else from the Marxist Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene whose 55 minute long premier film “Black Girl” established his reputation. Unfortunately, the only version that can be seen on Youtube lacks subtitles but if you are a Francophone, grab it. There’s also a DVD for sale on Amazon for $30 and well worth it. But your best bet is to sign up for a free trial membership on Mubi.com and watch it there. Since Mubi is one of those streaming sites I recommended to CounterPunch readers as an alternative to Netflix, you might want to stick around for the long haul.

The main character is Diouana, an impoverished young woman who is lured into taking a slave-like housekeeping job in France by a couple she meets in Dakar. Played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop, a nonprofessional, Diouana is first seen going door to door in the wealthy white quarters looking for a job. Eventually she learns that there is a special location on a downtown curb where prospective employers can pick out a domestic. Anybody who is familiar with hiring practices for gardeners, construction workers and other day laborers in places like Los Angeles or Long Island will be struck by the similarity.

The French couple promise Diouana the world. If she returns to Antibes with them, she will have no other duties except looking after their three children. In her spare time, she will be able to go sightseeing on the French Riviera. In the opening scene, we see her walking down the gangplank to meet her boss. In view of what awaits her, she might as well have been transported there in chains.

As soon as she arrives at the couple’s apartment, they demand that she serve as cook and maid as well. They keep her working every minute of the day and punish her when she doesn’t meet their expectations in a kind of racist version of Cinderella.

In some ways, Diouna is a kind of trophy brought back from Africa, like the mounted head of a slain beast. When her employers invite over a bunch of friends for a lunch of Senegalese-style rice that she is instructed to whip together on a moment’s notice, one of the men plants an uninvited kiss on her cheek and announces: “Now I know what it feels like to kiss a Black!”

Diouna initially shows her gratitude to the couple by presenting them with an authentic tribal mask that they display on their living-room wall. After she decides that she can no longer work for them, she takes the mask back. This simple act dramatizes the refusal of the postcolonial subject to cooperate with their own subjugation. After despair drives Diouna to take her life, the French husband returns to Senegal with her belongings, including the mask and several weeks wages, with the intention of presenting them to her mother. When a local schoolteacher (played by Ousmane Sembene) translates his words into Wolof, her mother refuses to accept the money and throws it on the ground. Despite Sembene’s Marxist convictions, this is frequently how his films end–on a note of passive resistance in the face of palpable defeat.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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