Directed by Sebastián Silva. Starring Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedón, Alejandro Goic, Andrea García-Huidobro, Mariana Loyola, Agustín Silva, Mercedes Villanueva, Anita Reeves. (2009, NR, 93 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 22, 2010
There are plentiful narratives out there that depict the class resentments between maids and their employers. Usually, they end in an outburst of violent revenge committed by the downtrodden servant class. Despite its title, the Chilean film The Maid is not one of these stories, though it shares many common elements. The behavior of Raquel (Saavedra), this film’s titular maid, can’t be thoroughly explained away by class analysis. Raquel’s behavior is more inscrutable, more pathological, and more human than any dialectical formula can explicate. Winner of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, The Maid is an intriguing psychological study that, more or less, leaves out the psychology and presents us with surface behavior. The film opens on Raquel’s 41st birthday as the couple for whom she works and their four children clumsily present her with a cake and presents. She has worked for this family for something like 20 years, which also happens to be the age of the eldest child, Camila (García-Huidobro). Sullen, territorial, and constantly popping pain pills, Raquel, who has her own apartment in the big house, is unpleasant to be around. Yet it’s also clear that there is nowhere else she would rather be. Her aloofness from the family members is only equaled by her total involvement in their rhythms. Her appearance is frumpy and her hair and eyes a bit wild. When Pilar (Celedón), her employer, tries to counteract Raquel’s discomfiting behavior by hiring a younger maid to provide extra assistance, Raquel maliciously sabotages the plan. Next, an older maid is brought in to lend a hand, and Raquel sends her quite literally up a wall and packing. The third maid, Lucy (Loyola), is different, however. Lucy responds to Raquel’s pathological affronts with kindness and hugs, and at this point the film goes in an unexpected direction. Saavedra’s central performance is remarkable to observe. Not only is it free of vanity, it also shows the malleability of the human body as an outward indicator of inner sentiments. Silva films the drama with a handheld video camera that allows for greater intimacy, though not necessarily better images. His unsentimental portrait of Raquel doesn’t render the character any less inscrutable, but he does manage to make the figure thoroughly human.