Film: The Maid ****
Release Date: 8th November 2010
Running time: 94 mins
Director: Sebastian Silva
Starring: Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedon, Mariana Loyola, Alejandro Goic, Anita Reeves
Studio: Artificial Eye
A winner at Sundance and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, The Maid is Sebastian Silva’s second feature, following on from the highly acclaimed La Vida Me Mata (Life Kills Me). Reuniting some of the cast, including a starring role for Catalina Saavedra, it took many critics by surprise and is released this month on DVD.
Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has spent 23 years working as housemaid in an upper class Santiago household; as much a part of the Valdez family as those she lives with and looks after. Plagued by migraines and dizziness, Raquel begins to question her role in the house but more importantly, she questions her life, not helped by her struggling relationship with the family’s vibrant daughter Camila.
To improve Raquel’s increasingly poor health and ease her workload the family hires a second maid – a young and pretty Peruvian called Mercedes. Although a hit with the family, Mercedes is tormented by a threatened Raquel with a campaign of psychological abuse and pettiness that eventually drives the young girl away.
Undeterred, the family hire a more experienced housemaid called Sonia – the two old hands eventually coming to blows after yet more misery served up by Raquel, who is growing increasingly desperate to retain her spurious status.
Her victory is brief. After collapsing she begrudgingly accepts a period of bed rest, soon to discover that Lucy, a cheerful and stubborn new maid, has effectively taken her place. Will her terror tactics work again, or will Lucy be able to finally show Raquel how to appreciate life beyond the household…
Director Sebastian Silva utilizes intentionally gritty and harsh handheld trickery, often lingering on angles and close-ups to emphasize the painful, all-too-real aspects of The Maid’s emotional character study. By ditching the soundtrack altogether, the viewer is hypnotised by these naturalistic techniques and becomes almost part of the family in a way Raquel can only dream of.
Most impressively, Silva manages to etch an almost romantic friendship between Raquel and Lucy which forms the backbone of a film that could otherwise stumble into complete nothingness or, worse still, all too obvious slasher territory. It takes such a relationship to remind Raquel that in truth she is merely an employee, and in that sense, expendable. Yet, the family shares no understanding of her deep attachment to them or how important she actually is. Highlighted brilliantly when Raquel spills the beans on the eldest son’s bedtime habits, the simple truth is that she knows each family member better than anyone, including their deepest and darkest secrets.
With slow and deliberate pacing, the film only struggles momentarily when the third maid is introduced. It’s a case of ‘here we go again’ until Silva changes direction and finally lets the audience witness a side to Raquel that never seemed possible. Catalina Saavedra’s performance is truly astonishing and deserves all the plaudits – with a creepy, miserable demeanor that borders on psychotic, it’s hard to fathom how she manages to create so much empathy. And yet she does, because whenever a rare smile crawls across her face it’s difficult not to smile along with her, pleased she’s finally found some form of happiness, no matter how fleeting.
Saavedra is supported by an outstanding cast; the most enjoyable performance coming from Anita Reeves, playing a stubborn battleaxe called Sonia who refuses to get too close with any of her employees and is bewildered by Raquel’s insistence that she is part of the family. There’s even a tense, if slightly unconvincing setpiece, when Sonia must scale the roof of the house after Raquel has locked her out. The resulting catfight is another cracking moment.
Superior casting aside, the viewer is also rewarded with some well-placed humour and neat chills: the eldest son betrayed by a woman he loves more than anyone when she tells his mother how frustrated she is with having to wash his pyjamas and bed sheets every day is cringe worthy yet funny, as is Lucy’s topless sunbathing to evoke a smile or two from her misunderstood nemesis. Meanwhile, a scene that reveals Raquel’s darker side when Pilar Valdez, the mother, discovers a photograph album in her room with her daughter’s image continually scratched out, sends a shiver down the spine as we’re left to wonder quite which direction the film is heading.
Of course, there are a few gripes as well: Raquel and daughter Camila’s relationship is never fully explored to understand its complexities. Instead, you can only assume that Camila’s pretty, full-of-life personality seriously troubles Raquel, whose life is predictable, dull and getting shorter by the second. At times the film is just too claustrophobic, a relief when the drama is finally taken outside, while the shower scenes and brief nudity aren’t necessary, and the amusing moments when Raquel locks each maid out of the house become slightly tiresome, questioning why they don’t just ask for a key to combat the inane madness.
Reshaped superbly at the halfway point into a beautiful tale of friendship, The Maid is a gripping character study with a masterful performance from Catalina Saavedra that just simply demands your attention.