Phil on Film Index

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review - The Maid (La nana)

As I watched the outstanding Chilean film The Maid, I anticipated a certain kind of story, but instead I was presented with something so much funnier, darker, more complex and more surprising than I could have imagined. I thought Sebastián Silva's film was going to be a straightforward examination of the class divide, with its central character being a maid who has loyally worked for the same wealthy family for over twenty years, but Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has a habit of tripping up our expectations. The Valdez family treat their veteran made with kindness and patience, doing what they can to make her feel part of the family, and the opening scene finds them throwing her a birthday party. Raquel, however, refuses to budge from the kitchen, and when they finally persuade her to come and accept her gifts, she does so in a surly fashion before quietly getting back to her work. "You don't have to do the dishes now," the matriarch Pilar (Claudia Celedón) insists. "If I don't do them now I'll just have to do them later," Raquel morosely replies.

The truth is that the 41 year-old has become worn down by her years of hard work and selfless devotion, and soon she is suffering from debilitating headaches and blackouts, but when Pilar decides to hire another made to share the workload, she unwittingly lights a dangerous fuse. The moment Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) sets foot on the property, Raquel makes it her mission to drive the young girl away. She torments her, locks her out of the house and even scrubs down the bathroom with powerful disinfectants whenever the bemused and scared Mercedes has taken a shower. She does everything in her power to reclaim her position of dominance within the household. This is Raquel's territory, and she's not giving it up without a fight.

As her behaviour becomes increasingly unreasonable, The Maid becomes something of a psychological thriller laced with a healthy dose of black comedy. Silva's beautifully structured screenplay zags when you expect it to zig, and he develops a riveting sense of tension as Raquel engages in an absurd battle of wills with a succession of maids. Even as the film strays into more outlandishly comic territory – like Raquel hiding a cat in a drawer, or the second new maid Sonia (Anita Reeves) being reduced to clambering over the rooftops – Silva makes sure it all develops in a natural fashion and that it remains rooted in a believable sense of humanity. Perhaps Silva's prime skills as a filmmaker lie in his writing rather than his directing, as The Maid is shot in a drab and sometimes clumsy fashion, but he does enough to wring plenty of mileage out of his script, and he draws superb performances from his actors.

Above all, the central performance from Catalina Saavedra is an astonishing piece of work. It's a brilliantly complex portrayal, simultaneously fearsome and funny, and as the film progresses she allows us to see behind the character's gruff exterior to examine the root cause of her extreme behaviour. Having spent two decades living and working with this family, Raquel has nobody else in her life and she has become emotionally stunted through her lack of experience of the outside world. When her role as the Valdez family's maid is threatened she fears she's about to lose everything, so she reacts in the only way she knows how, fighting tooth and nail to scare off any competitors. Even as Raquel burns with vindictive intent, however, Saavedra finds room for moments of tenderness in her performance; she really does love this family, she just has an unusual way of showing it.

That's why the final section of the film is so satisfying. When Pilar tries for the third time to find an assistant who Raquel can work alongside she hits the jackpot with Lucy (the brilliant Mariana Loyola), a young maid who stands her ground against Raquel's aggressive tactics. Lucy's no-nonsense approach and her determination to connect with Raquel gives the older maid an opportunity to develop a real friendship for the first time in many years, and when she finally allows her grumpy visage to relax into an uneasy smile, there's a genuine sense of revelation. The Maid takes us on a real journey with Raquel, who, thanks to Silva's perceptive writing and Saavedra's extraordinary display, is one of the year's most intriguing and entertaining screen characters. When we finally leave her, striding purposefully towards the camera, it feels like we've witnessed nothing less than a woman reborn.