Mi casa es mi casa
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