A Brazilian film about the relationship between families and their household servants. I’ve little experience of this myself, but my wife and her family (South African) know all about kids being brought up by servants. There are loving relationships between the servants and their charges, but everyone knows – or grows to know – the precise boundaries that delineate the extent to which the servants are, and are not, family members.
And that’s what the film is about. Val, a poor woman from the North East of Brazil, brings up the nice young son in a beautiful modernist house in Sao Paolo, with pool, lovely garden, cute Labrador and all the other trimmings. She is trusted, loyal, loves the son and is loved by him in a way that he doesn’t love his real mother – the Portuguese title is ‘When is she coming home?’, a question that the boy asks about his mummy early on, when he’s about six and being cared for by Val.
But the stable equilibrium is disrupted by the introduction of Val’s daughter Jessica, who comes to Sao Paolo to take the entrance exam for university. The family – Dona Barbara really, who runs the show – gives permission for Jessica to stay in the house, in Val’s servant room. But Jessica doesn’t understand the rules of the master-servant game and all the little ways in which Val diminishes herself to maintain those boundaries. Oh, and she’s beautiful and clever.
This film is actually painful to watch, though it does have some comic moments. Dona Barbara reacts very badly to the disruption – when Jessica swims in the family pool she orders it to be drained, claiming to have seen a rat in there. Her husband, a failed artist, makes a fool of himself because Jessica is beautiful and young.
This is a bit slow in the beginning, and a bit long, but really worth staying with.