By Jeff Farr
Elephant Eye Films
After premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Sebastián Silva’s “The Maid” became one of the most honored foreign films of 2009. It was eventually nominated for the Golden Globe for best foreign film but lost out to Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon.”
Silva, a young filmmaker from Santiago, Chile — who has spent some time beating down doors in Hollywood — proves himself a bright hope for Latin American cinema with “The Maid,” his second feature. His greatest strength here is his work with Catalina Saavreda, playing the titular role of the maid, and a number of other fine Chilean actresses.
Saavreda is certainly the film’s core as Racquel. We gradually come to realize that she is a severely disturbed woman from working for the same upper-class family for more than twenty years. From the opening scene, in which family members surprise Racquel for her 41st birthday, Silva makes it clear how she is at once a crucial part of this family and forever alienated from it. Her discomfort with them after such a long time of close association speaks volumes.
Racquel does not join family dinners–she lives in a separate part of the house. But as Silva depicts her exhausting daily routine, which includes waking up every member of a family with four kids, we get the feeling that this house would simply not run without her.
When the mother of the household (Claudia Celedon) determines to help Racquel out by bringing in an additional maid, Racquel’s behavior takes some frightening turns. Her deep insecurities find voice in some dirty tricks. She fears more than anything else sharing her work with anyone: It is her little piece of the world, her domain.
As Racquel is a woman of few words, Saavreda’s performance relies heavily on facial and body expression. The film begins with her staring blankly into the camera, but it is a sinister blankness. In many ways, this is a film about Saavreda’s highly expressive face and body.
Part of the sick humor of “The Maid” is the family’s general obliviousness to Racquel’s plight, which would seem to be painfully obvious to anyone — especially those living under the same roof day and night. No matter how Racquel pouts or makes trouble, no one except the daughter of the house (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro) takes this brewing one-woman storm with much seriousness.
In fact, it takes the arrival of a new maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola) — after Racquel has had a breakdown — for anyone to pay her the attention she deserves. Lucy immediately sees the wounded, repressed creature behind Racquel’s scowl. In the film’s most emotional scene, Lucy embraces Racquel and cries, “What have they done to you?”
The screenplay, written by Silva with collaborator Pedro Peirano, has welcome twists and turns on its way to Racquel’s unexpected turnaround. It is touching to see this woman of seemingly little promise in the end actually start to blossom and possibly begin to create a better future for herself.
But a weak point here is that “The Maid” winds up having little to say by way of social commentary. Lucy’s piercing question– “What have they done to you?”–gets lost in the shuffle.
Early on, “The Maid” seems to set itself up as commentary by emphasizing the drudgery of Racquel’s existence and the selfishness of the children. But Silva drops all of this toward the end, focusing instead on the liberation Racquel finds through friendship and sexual awakening.
It comes off as a bit condescending to his character: Racquel’s real problem, it could be taken, is that she does not have any friends among her own people; Racquel’s real problem is that she needs to get laid; Racquel’s real problem is that she needs to take up jogging and start taking better care of her health.
The problem, in other words, is not what it seemed at the outset: that this insensitive family has used and abused her throughout the prime of her life, and there have been emotional and mental consequences for Racquel. The family, in other words, gets off easy here.
Perhaps it is a bit telling that Silva has dedicated the film to two of his own childhood maids. The story here is actually told more from the perspective of the wealthy — on these strange specimens of servitude — than from the servants’ own point of view.
Depite this drawback, Silva shows quite a talent for bringing the women characters, not just Racquel, fully to life. Celedon’s performance as Pilar makes an interesting contrast to Saavreda’s: Pilar is everything Racquel is not — a sophisticated woman, a university professor, someone in full command of language and her family situation. When Pilar tactfully tries to explain why additional help would be beneficial to Racquel, Silva highlights the chasm between these two women. Pilar has many good points to make; Racquel cannot say much in return and cannot even stay still. Celedon’s performance is appropriately understated and verbal, while Saavreda’s is sometimes over the top and, again, largely physical.
Loyola, who brings empathy as Lucy, also has a memorable performance. She makes it clear to Racquel soon after they meet: “I’m not going to be here for the rest of my life. I’d rather die.” Loyola conveys how Lucy can see a life for herself beyond being a maid–and can see the same for her new friend, Racquel.