Mi casa es mi casa

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards I For The New Mex­i­can

The Maid, do­mes­tic drama, not rated, in Span­ish with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles Some­times funny, some­times sad, some­times un­set­tling, and al­ways en­gross­ing, The Maid is a do­mes­tic drama about the gulf that ex­ists at im­pos­si­bly close quar­ters be­tween up­stairs and down­stairs, em­ployer and house­hold ser­vant, fam­ily and just­like-one-of-the-fam­ily.

Raquel (Catalina Saave­dra) sleeps in the maid’s room off the kitchen in a well-to-do house­hold in San­ti­ago, Chile. She rises at dawn to the shrill of an alarm clock, rouses the chil­dren for school, brings a break­fast tray to the par­ents’ bed­room, goes to the mar­ket, sweeps and dusts, scrubs and vac­u­ums, does the laun­dry and the dishes, makes the beds, finds lost cloth­ing, wa­ters the plants. She’s been do­ing this in the house­hold for more than 20 years, since be­fore the old­est child was born, since she was barely more than a child her­self. She’s just like one of the fam­ily.

The movie be­gins on her 41st birth­day. As Raquel sits sul­lenly in the kitchen, eat­ing some­thing brown, there is a bus­tle of whis­pered ac­tiv­ity from the din­ing room, and she is sum­moned for presents and cake. At first she re­fuses to come. “She’s too em­bar­rassed,” says the teenage son, Lu­cas (Agustín Silva). So are we. There is some­thing ex­cru­ci­at­ing about the scene, and it’s not easy to tell just what it is.

Is it the ba­sic fact of do­mes­tic servi­tude? The fam­ily mem­bers seem like nice folks. They treat her with gen­uine warmth and af­fec­tion, for the most part, though there’s no con­fu­sion about what the roles are or who be­longs where. There’s a cer­tain sub­con­scious con­de­scen­sion in as­sump­tions about class and taste— the dull sweater they give Raquel as a birth­day present is noth­ing like the el­e­gant ones she ad­mires in her em­ployer’s closet.

It is with the ar­rival of the last of th­ese as­sis­tants, Lucy (a won­der­ful Mar­i­ana Loy­ola), that the movie’s third act gets un­der­way, and it ush­ers in a se­ries of de­vel­op­ments that come as a sur­prise to us and to Raquel as well. Lucy is the sort to make lemon tanning but­ter out of the sourest lemons, and her de­ter­mined in­sis­tence on treat­ing Raquel with friendly hu­man­ity over­whelms her co-worker’s re­sis­tance.

It has long since be­come clear that di­rec­tor Se­bastián Silva (who co-au­thored the screen­play with Pe­dro Peirano) is not af­ter a sim­ple class-war­fare di­a­tribe on the evils of a sys­tem in which peo­ple with fewer ad­van­tages make a liv­ing work­ing for peo­ple with greater ad­van­tages. The Maid is more a char­ac­ter study than a so­cial­ist man­i­festo. Silva shot the film in the San­ti­ago home in which he grew up and ded­i­cated it to two maids who worked for his fam­ily. He knows his way around the sub­ject from the in­side.

The meat and bones of this story are in Saave­dra’s re­mark­able per­for­mance. Saave­dra, a star of stage, screen, and tele­vi­sion in Chile, an­nounces her­self to the world here in col­lect­ing a pas­sel of act­ing awards, in­clud­ing aWorld Cin­ema Spe­cial Jury Prize at Sun­dance. With her eyes fixed in a glassy scowl and her thin mouth tucked down at the cor­ners, with her shoul­ders hunched and her chin jut­ting in re­sent­ful de­fi­ance, Raquel prowls the house with vacuum cleaner in hand (or some­times not in hand, but roar­ing bizarrely unat­tended while she skulks and spies). She plays her fa­vorites, es­pe­cially Lu­cas, and be­dev­ils the teenage Camila (An­drea Gar­cía-Huido­bro), who re­sponds by pulling rank and snip­ing that “You’re just the maid here!” She saves her worst for the as­sis­tant maids who in­vade her realm. We don’t know where it is all go­ing, but this is not a woman we would want to see with a chip on her shoul­der and a kitchen knife in her hands.

The Maid is not re­ally a sys­temic in­dict­ment, though it makes us think about the sys­tem. The other maids who come to work for Pi­lar don’t carry the weight of re­sent­ment of servi­tude; Raquel’s dis­gruntle­ment could oc­cur as eas­ily in a real es­tate agent, an in­sur­ance clerk, or a postal worker. In the end, it’s the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of Silva and Saave­dra’s por­trait that gives the movie its strength. The mother, Pi­lar (Clau­dia Celedón), is friendly and car­ing, and when Raquel suf­fers from crip­pling headaches, pre­sum­ably brought on by the bur­den of her work­load, Pi­lar tells Raquel she will hire some­body to help her with the house­hold chores.

This is not wel­come news. Raquel may be sullen and stressed, but she guards her ter­ri­to­rial pre­rog­a­tives with a fierce jeal­ousy. She in­sists to Pi­lar that she doesn’t need any help, but Pi­lar, con­cerned for her maid’s health, hires an as­sis­tant any­way.

We’ve seen the pas­sive-ag­gres­sive side of Raquel al­ready, but the in­tru­sion of Mercedes (Mercedes Vil­lanueva), a pretty young Peru­vian, brings out the house­keeper’s in­ner Mrs. Dan­vers. The girl is sweet and com­pli­ant, but she’s no match for Raquel’s im­pla­ca­ble hos­til­ity, and she’s soon put to flight. It’s the beginning of a sort of three-bears pro­gres­sion of sous-maids: the first is too soft, the sec­ond is too tough, but the third is just right.

The help needs some­body, and not just any­body: Catalina Saave­dra

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