THE MAID (Sebastián Silva, 2009)

“You’re just the maid here!”

La nana, which its director, Sebastián Silva, wrote from his own story along with Pedro Peirano, is an almost wickedly witty satire of class relations in its two originating countries, Chile and Mexico, and, one suspects, a good many other Latin countries in the Americas. It is set in Santiago, Chile, in the stinking rich, bourgeois household of an uptight university professor and her easy-going spouse, a businessman, I presume; when Silva discusses his film, he emphasizes its autobiographical element, hinting that the pubescent son is based on himself (the actor who plays Lucas Valdez, Agustín Silva, may be a relation), and expresses sympathy for his own family’s live-in maid in his youth, who was “family” in a sense, but also wasn’t. Silva’s film, though, stretches exhilaratingly beyond such mild and misleading underpinnings.
     Raquel (Catalina Saavedra, marvelous—best actress, Sundance, Santa Cruz, Miami, Havana, Biarritz, Huelva Latin American Film Festival, etc.) has been the Valdezes’s live-in maid for 23 years; today is her 41st birthday, and the Valdezes drag her from the kitchen into the dining room for some cake and a few modest gifts. Few words pass between Raquel and her employers. Indeed, look closely and you will see what has contributed to Raquel’s crisis, which has brought her of late dizziness and intense headaches: wife and mother Pilar treats Raquel with subtle, unremitting condescension. She means well, I have no doubt. Some see as magnanimous Pilar’s helping Raquel with the dishes on her birthday. I see it as an awkward, unconvincing, guilt-motivated gesture.
     The Valdezes decide that their hiring another maid would make life easier for Raquel—you know, get rid of those headaches. They are motivated by “compassion,” the assumption for which is that any trouble inside their home derives from nothing other than what is going on inside their home. Well, okay; but one of the things going on there is that Raquel is daily impressed by the disparity between her economic and social circumstances and those of the Valdezes, for which the Valdez swimming pool shimmers as one of a nexus of pertinent symbols. As it happens, Raquel feels threatened by the Valdezes’ hiring of a maid to assist her and thereby relieve her burden. Thus Raquel, grasping at what little bit of authority she hopes to retain (along with her job), manipulates circumstance to get banished two of these employees in succession.
     The third, however, proves the charm. Lucy befriends Raquel, who is tickled by the fact that Lucy, unlike her, seems so free, so much her own person. On the Valdez grounds, Lucy sunbathes in the nude; she boasts that she won’t be a servant forever. But who knows? Perhaps when she was Lucy’s age, Raquel also had passing dreams of moving on to a better life. Indeed, unlike many others, I find the finale of this film darkly ambiguous. Raquel passes by Lucy at table with the Valdez kids and goes outside for a first jog, heretofore Lucy’s activity, much as interacting with the kids had been part of her routine. I appreciate that it is possible—on one level, certainly is the fact—that Raquel has moved from dizziness to a more wholesome balance and has found a private space, however modest, reserved for just herself. But, please, note that it is very dark when she takes her jog, and this at least raises the specter of the world’s danger, Raquel’s continuing vulnerability. Moreover, as she passed the others at table there was a joke among them about robotic behavior; on one level, couldn’t we now apply this term to Raquel? The final handheld shot of Silva’s videographed work finds Raquel listening to music and, without expression, jogging towards the camera, which continuously recedes, at equal pace, creating a kind of stasis. A “copy” of Lucy, Raquel is herself a robot now. It is an image of non-progress, of “going nowhere.” Raquel’s headache is gone. She has turned into it.
     Best film prizes at Cartagena, Guadalajara, Huelva and Lima; best script at Miami.

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