In The Pantry, A Woman Very Much On The Verge

W: Catalina Saavedra in 'The Maid'

hide captionNot Just Black And White: Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) is the longtime maid for a prosperous clan in Chile, where live-ins often work for little more than room and board. She's practically one of the family — though she still wears a uniform.

Elephant Eye Films

The Maid

  • Director: Sebastian Silva
  • Genre: Drama, Foreign
  • Running Time: 95 minutes

Not Rated

With: Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedon

(Recommended)

When The Maid first introduces us to Raquel, the live-in housekeeper of a wealthy Chilean family in suburban Santiago, she's eating dinner alone at the kitchen table. Next door in the dining room, her bosses gaily plot her surprise birthday celebration.

The look on Raquel's face — the eyes flinty, the lips compressed into a thin line — followed by her mad rush back from the cake and candles to wash dishes in her domain, warn us not to expect the particularly touching episode of Upstairs, Downstairs that her employers think they're playing out. If anything, director Sebastian Silva, who co-wrote the spare screenplay with Pedro Peirano, seems to be softening us up for a Jean Genet knockoff, or at least for The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: Pushed far enough, these opening images seem to say, the faithful retainer may become the madwoman in the attic.

Raquel, played with pent-up intensity by Catalina Saavedra, may not be overtly aware that turning 41 could be the tipping point when maids quietly turn into old maids, but if her body language is any indication, her subconscious is working overtime. With Silva's hand-held camera hovering over her hunched shoulder, she attacks her endless chores with clumsy ferocity, her labors periodically interrupted by migraine headaches and fainting spells.

Like most powerless victims, she vents the rage pooling inside her on her peers, repeatedly locking the front door on other maids hired by her concerned employer to help out. Insisting that she's part of the family, that she loves them and they love her back, she nonetheless carries on an internecine war with the spoiled teenage daughter of the house while the mother (Claudia Celedon) flaps her hands and tries to mediate. Several terse cell phone conversations suggest that Raquel has another oppressor outside the house. Small wonder that we catch her furtively trying on the head of a gorilla suit.

Catalina Saavedra in 'The Maid' i i

hide captionAs Raquel begins to unravel, she resorts to playing tricks on her employers — going so far as to dress up in a monkey suit — and locking the new maid out of the house.

Elephant Eye Films
Catalina Saavedra in 'The Maid'

As Raquel begins to unravel, she resorts to playing tricks on her employers — going so far as to dress up in a monkey suit — and locking the new maid out of the house.

Elephant Eye Films

Saavedra is outstanding as Raquel, but in the end what drives the movie is the hip young filmmaker's struggle with himself — his showman's need to toy with our anxieties threatening to overwhelm his desire to make amends to all the servants he took for granted growing up. Is The Maid a black comedy, or a piece of agitprop on behalf of the thousands of Chilean live-ins who work all hours, frequently unpaid and always unprotected by labor laws?

The two forms aren't mutually exclusive, but Silva's ambivalence is telling. Shot in his childhood home, with his younger brother playing the son favored by Raquel, the movie is a singularly personal study in liberal guilt — his own as well as that of his mother, played here as a well-meaning matron who colludes with Raquel in a fragile intimacy that papers over the abyss widening between them. (The two mother figures can jaw all they like over a glass of wine, but nothing inside this stuffy house — a microcosmic showcase for the inequalities that mar all societies divided by race, class and gender — will put them on an equal footing when one of them wears a uniform and washes the floors.)

To his credit, Silva understands that for women like Raquel, liberation can come only from among her own kind, in this case from a new servant with a sunny outlook, a penchant for sunbathing nude and a blithe unwillingness to take crap from anyone, Raquel included. The sturdy Lucy (Mariana Loyola), who recognizes the difference between a family of convenience and the real thing, offers Raquel more than one shot at happiness.

I shouldn't tell you what happens next, except to say that whatever you're thinking, it's not what you think. Nor can I say for sure whether the final scene is an act of narrative mercy or a cop-out by a director unwilling to finish what he started. But who says art can't change the world? Two weeks after Silva showed his film to the faithful family retainer on whom he based Raquel, she quit her job, fell in love and got a life. (Recommended)

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