The Brazilian film Que horas ela volta (The Second Mother), directed by Anna Muylaert in 2015, has received contrasting interpretations. Some critics have argued that Muylaert belongs to the old middle class and her film supports the status quo in line with the conservative discourse of Brazilian "middle-class cinema." For María Mercedes Vázquez Vázquez (2018), for instance, the film is an expression of the Brazilian bourgeoisie's anxiety about the rise of the lower classes represented by Val (Regina Casé), the live-in housemaid of a wealthy white family in São Paulo, and her daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila). In this sense, mother and daughter are seen as social climbers who threaten the traditional middle-class establishment.
Other critics (and this is the predominant interpretation of the film) believe that Que horas ela volta does not engage in advocating the conservative status quo, but rather supports the upward social mobility of the lower classes promoted by the progressive governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. The sequences related to the swimming pool—a space off-limits to the servants—are probably the most relevant to underpin this latter interpretation. While Val has always followed social conventions and tries to enforce the unquestioned class barriers of Dona Bárbara’s home, her daughter, by contrast, seems to ignore class boundaries and throws them into disarray during her brief stay. Val is appalled when Jéssica dives into the forbidden pool but—after Dona Bárbara decides to empty it, by claiming to have seen a rat in the water—she herself enters it. Val ends up questioning, in Tiago de Luca’s words, the spatial prohibitions of the house, although more timidly than her daughter does. Even if limited (since, symbolically, the pool has just a few inches of water), Val’s transgression is empowering and promising.
In my video essay I focus on another metaphor that might suggest a less optimistic—or maybe more ambiguous—reading of the film: a black and white coffee set that Val gives to her employer Dona Bárbara for her birthday. The emphasis on the black and white theme is so reiterative that it cannot go unnoticed: Val’s gift is wrapped in black and white checkered paper; the box shows the image of black and white cups on mismatched saucers; Val wears a checkered apron; and Dona Bárbara is dressed in a white top and black pants. The coffee set seems to clearly underscore the contrast between the opposing ideological positions of the maid and her employer on Brazilian society. On the one hand, Dona Bárbara’s overt dislike for Val’s gift parallels her resistance to class/racial mobility and interclass/interracial relations. Significantly, at the next special occasion, Dona Bárbara prefers to use a white wooden set from Sweden rather than Val’s gift. On the other hand, Val is fascinated by the mismatched colors of the cups, which are “modern” and “different,” in her words, like her daughter Jéssica. At the end of the film, the coffee set becomes the symbol of (and the tool for) Val’s second transgression: when she leaves Dona Bárbara’s house, she steals it and proudly shows it as a trophy to Jéssica.
At first, Val's interaction with the coffee set seems to reinforce the interpretation that the film celebrates, in a somewhat didactic way, the defeat of class immobility and racial segregation. However, an unexpected twist undermines such a utopian and simplistic vision. At the end of the film, the cups are no longer mismatched, and Val is drinking from a white cup on a white saucer. In an uncanny turn, the film seems to be less positive about the possibility of breaking with the status quo. The rearrangement of the cups—white with white and black with black—seems to allude to a failure. Val’s transgression is limited to her individual experience and does not change the systemic class division. Despite her success, social immobility and the absence of interclass/interracial relationships persist in Brazil.
For this video-graphic essay, I chose a multi-screen layout—2 rows x 3 columns—that reproduces the pattern of a six-cup coffee set. Val moves across columns. The central column is about Val’s fascination with the coffee set’s mismatched colors. The column on the left shows Dona Bárbara pretending to like Val’s gift but then rejecting it when she has a chance to use it for a “special occasion.” The column on the right is about Val’s daughter Jéssica at the end of the film and the surprising final twist. Throughout the video-graphic essay, I maintain a default scale for all clips, with the exception of a zoom-in on the two coffee cups with the same color saucers, which reveals the film’s subtle deconstruction of the happy ending: Val’s actions and her personal success have not altered the absence of interclass mobility in Brazil.
Que horas ela volta (The Second Mother), directed by Anna Muylaert, 2015.
de Luca, Tiago (2017): ‘“Casa Grande & Senzala”: Domestic Space and Class Conflict in Casa Grande and Que horas ela volta?’ in Antonio M. da Silva & Mariana Cunha (eds), Space and Subjectivity in Contemporary Brazilian Cinema (London: Palgrave), pp. 203-219.
Harvey, David (2005): A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vázquez Vázquez, María Mercedes (2018): The Question of Class in Contemporary Latin American Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books Press.
Barbara Zecchi (PhD University of California Los Angeles, 1998) is Professor and Director of the Film Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Trained as a videoessayist at the Middlebury’s Scholarship in Sound and Image (2019), Zecchi's research and teaching interests include gender studies and feminist film theory, ageing studies, adaptation theory, video-graphic criticism, and the use of technology in the humanities. She has lectured extensively in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Europe. In addition to numerous video-essays, journal articles, and book chapters, she is the author of the monographs La pantalla sexuada (The Gendered Screen, 2015) and Desenfocadas (Women Out of Focus, 2014), and of the edited or co-edited volumes Gender-Based Violence in Latin American and Iberian Cinemas (2020), Gynocine (2013), Teoría y práctica de la adaptación fílmica (2011), La mujer en la España actual, ¿evolución o involución? (2004) and Sexualidad y escritura (2002), among others. In 2011, she founded the open access digital humanities project «Gynocine: Women Filmmakers, Feminism, And Film Studies».