When Val’s daughter Jéssica gets in touch after many years sem communication to ask for a place to stay in São Paulo, Val intends to allow her to sleep on a mattress next to her bed on the floor of her tiny back room. Val is the nanny to Dona Barbara, a spoilt but OK-ish matriarch; her husband, who is a Doctor of something, maybe painting or architecture; and their teenage son. But on her arrival, Jéssica argues – successfully – that she ought to be given instead their large, unused guest room to sleep in. From there on, she continues to flout the many, many unwritten rules of which her mother is so painfully aware.
Just like in most stories of a stranger’s arrival in a strange place, Jéssica is at first embraced, then slowly turned against; her ice-cream-eating, pool-swimming ways threatening the unspoken yet strict class divisions between upper-class family and working-class maid. We are not, particularly, invited to get invested in the psychologies of Val’s employers, so the film finally resolves itself into a conflict between Val’s instinctive obedience and Jéssica’s relentless questioning of authority. If the natural instinct of the film – along with, in all likelihood, its audiences – is to side with rebellion over tradition, this is counterbalanced by the sheer likability of Regina Casé as Val, a deeply human character in a world of stereotypes: the haughty bourgeois wife; the emasculated academic; the charmless, infantilised teenage boy; the student with ideas of her own. Val herself is a stereotype, too: the mumsy Latin maid; but it is a stereotype which is played out with so much depth and realism and uncharismatic magnetism that it’s enough to give the viewer that rare moment of remembering that stereotypes are people, too, and the most unfortunate thing about the script is that it could not extend that humanism of writing to its entire cast.
But then, I might be asking something of the film which was never its intent. Actually I spent a good forty minutes or so wondering what exactly the film’s intent was going to be. It sets up its characters, setting and daily routine with the kind of repetitive slowness that you only ever really see in Alien and some of its space-horror imitators. In its consistency with the deliberate rhythms of the film to come, it’s a paradoxically misleading first act: it seems like something’s going to happen, and it’s fair to say that, in its two-hour runtime, essentially nothing does. It’s not really a bad or a good thing, just a fact of the film, and if you allow yourself to be drawn in then there really is a sort of slow fascination, and a joyous moment in a pool close to the film’s end feels all the more earned because of it. Actually it’s the moment that the film should have ended on, the good and expectedly subtle script deciding at the last minute to just show you all of the stuff that you’d already figured out, which is frustrating – especially in a film that fits so determinedly into its artsy foreign wheelhouse.
Still, there’s more to celebrate here than there is to lament, and with its largely gentle conflict between basically decent people, it’s a pleasant and nicely thoughtful couple of hours in the class struggle in São Paulo.
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