Reversing roles of servant, served
By Jan Stuart
Friday, Oct. 30, 2009
There is a funny gag in the Neil Simon spoof "Murder by Death" in which Elsa Lanchester's character is introduced trundling an ancient woman in a wheelchair. We are meant to infer that the coddled dowager is a genteel Englishwoman of some means and that Lanchester is her caretaker-for-hire, only to discover that it's the other way around: The fragile lady being pushed in the chair is Lanchester's devoted nurse.
The scene springs to mind during Sebastin Silva's winning new film, "The Maid," which finds the matriarch of a bourgeois Chilean household happily doing the dishes for her live-in servant and is later called upon to come to her rescue when the maid passes out while serving breakfast to her employers.
It should be said upfront that "The Maid" is neither a comedy in the conventional sense nor are we witnessing a simple case of role reversal. The relationship between Raquel, the maid, and the family she caters to six days a week is far more nuanced.
Dour, frumpish, beset by migraines, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra, giving a bravely alienating performance) has been in the employ of Mundo (Alejandro Goic) and his nurturing wife, Pilar (a warmly sympathetic Claudia Celedn), for more than 20 years. It is long enough for Raquel to have developed a familial intimacy with the couple and their four kids, whom she has essentially raised. The bond has grown strong enough, moreover, that Pilar and Mundo are able to rationalize away her chronic mopiness and professional lapses.
Those transgressions begin to escalate in the weeks after Raquel's 41st birthday, when, after the family fetes her with cake and presents, Pilar announces she is hiring a second hand to help her overburdened maid. The arrival of an eager-beaver teenager from Peru amplifies Raquel's awareness of her advancing years and tilts the balance of the rapport she has forged with the kids, particularly the eldest boy, Lucas, and his teenage sister, Camilla.
"The Maid" underscores the shifting interplay of roles in South American countries where volatile economies are triggering a blurring of class lines. The film also reflects a more subtle appreciation of its protagonists than is usually found in telenovelas, which often reinforce the dirty-joke notion of the maid as a homewrecker temptress steeped in domestic intrigue.
The only entanglements Raquel works up with the menfolk are a conspiratorial concealment of Mundo's golfing excursions and a crush she harbors for Lucas. Lucas and Camilla's coming-of-age sadly points up the static nature of Raquel's emotional maturity. Foisted into the workplace while still a teenager, she's still something of an adolescent herself, clinging to her Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas, undermining Pilar's successive second maids and harassing Camilla in the fight to maintain her unofficial ranking as Pilar and Mundo's surrogate other daughter.
"The Maid's" discomfortingly funny first half flirts with the unease of a Claude Chabrol suspense film, as Raquel resorts to mortifying stratagems to wipe out the competition. Both the film and its sullen protagonist effect a change in tone with the late incursion of new maid Lucy, a bespectacled, bighearted gal who offers Raquel something no one else had the courage to impose: unqualified friendship and an equal place at the table. As played by the captivating Mariana Loyola, Lucy is a life force, cut from similar cloth as the perky schoolteacher of Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky": unsinkable, unswervable and more than a little irreverent.
The screenplay (which the director co-wrote with ex-boyfriend Pedro Peirano) weaves in character details with artful sparingness, furtively dropping in essential bits of information and daring to leave a few question marks dangling. A deserved prizewinner at Sundance, Saavedra seems to age 25 years and then drop 35 in the space of an hour and a half. Her Raquel gives us pause to contemplate how any of us would fare if a camera caught us at our lowest, running out of gas and stopping at nothing to defend our little corner of the planet.
Stuart is a freelance reviewer.
Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains sexual content, nudity and language. In Spanish with English subtitles. 94 minutes.