The Maid (Elephant Eye Films, NR)

film_the-maid_sm.jpgThe Maid offers a matter-of-fact examination of social class the likes of which you seldom see in American film.

 

 

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Imagine being summoned to your own birthday party by the same bell which ordinarily tells you it’s time to serve dessert or clear the table. That’s the experience of Raquel (Catalina Saaveda), domestic servant to an upper-class Chilean family, in the opening scene of Sebastian Silva’s The Maid.

You can cut the discomfort with a knife as the family goes through the motions of celebration while Raquel, still in her black-and-white maid’s uniform, would clearly prefer to eat in the kitchen as she has every other night of her adult life. The gulf between them could not be greater, and observing this feeble attempt to pretend it doesn’t exist makes your skin crawl with discomfort.

The Maid offers a matter-of-fact examination of social class the likes of which you seldom see in American film. Raquel is only 41 but seems several decades older, worn out not just with housework but from years of being treated as a non-person with nothing to look forward to but more of the same. She’s served this particular family for over 20 years, almost half her entire lifetime, and has no life outside of her role as maid.

But Raquel is no idealized representative of the working class; instead, she’s sullen and secretive and occasionally mean. Likewise, the family she works for are neither angels or devils, just self-involved people who accept their fortunate place in society while remaining unable to imagine life on the other side of the class divide.

Raquel is experiencing headaches and dizzy spells which her employers Pilar (Claudia Celedón) and Mundo (Alejandro Goic) fear may be due to overwork, so they hire Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva), a young woman from Peru, to help with the chores. The new maid is sweet and smiling and looks remarkably like the young Raquel (seen in a photograph early in the film) before she was worn down by a life of servitude. Of course the family takes to Mercedes immediately: Who wouldn’t favor a pretty young maid over an old and embittered one?

Feeling the threat to her position in the household, Raquel hounds Mercedes until she quits. A second helper-to-be (Anita Reeves) gets the same treatment but the third is a free spirit who sings in the shower, sunbathes in the nude and declares that she has no intentions of being a maid forever. Lucy (Mariana Loyola) is a trickster who refuses to observe existing boundaries, and her casual unconcern for following the rules works magic on Raquel who finds in Lucy perhaps the first real friend of her life.

The Maid at times resembles a documentary due to handheld, straightforward cinematography by Sergio Armstrong and low-key acting. This approach serves the material well; it succeeds better by understatement than by wearing its politics on its sleeve. Another directorial decision has an almost subliminal effect which underlines Raquel’s changing perspective on life. The pre-Lucy portions of the film are shot almost entirely within the confines of Pilar and Mundo’s home, representing Raquel’s limited physical and mental universe. When her world opens up, so does the film.

Saaveda is not well known in the English-speaking world (she has many credits in Spanish-language films and television) but her tour-de-force performance in The Maid should change all that. Sundance awarded her a special jury prize for acting as well as giving The Maid its Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema. The role of Raquel is distinctly unglamorous and foreign-language films always face a huge barrier in the U.S. market, but if there’s any justice in the Academy she’ll be contending for a Best Actress Oscar this spring. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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