There were giggles in the theatre as the title for Sebastián Silva’s “The Maid” popped up on the screen, right as Raquel, played by actress Catalina Saavedra, looks directly into the camera over her supper. What makes Raquel tick? We are invited to take a close, private look at a woman whose health is deteriorating and whose cut-and-dried existence is thrown into turmoil, yet it is difficult to draw any concrete conclusions about her. “The Maid” is an unassuming film, but a smart one in the way it keeps us wondering what’s afoot underneath its simplicity.
Perhaps it is important to first consider what a house means. To those who reside in it, a house is a sanctuary. Though prone to fits of redecoration and remodeling, a house is stationary, welcoming, necessary for a home. A house is a lot like a mind. There is an effort made to keep intrusive thoughts and emotions out, but once in, there is calamity, embarrassment, hurt. A house can turn against us the way a mind can. It can make us believe certain truths that aren’t truths at all, because a house begins to feel as though it belongs to us, the way our minds do.
Nearly every scene in “The Maid” takes place in or on the grounds of a house belonging to a Chilean family. They are happy, well to do, upper-middle class but no higher. As the films opens, the family surprises Raquel, their maid for 20 years, with a cake and presents on her 41st birthday. Raquel knows their gesture is coming and hesitates before leaving her designated eating area to endure the well wishes and candles. It hangs in the atmosphere that in all those 20 years, the family has never truly regarded Raquel as a person, only given her the same wide grins and shared the same pleasantries one would share with a loyal pet.
Raquel’s is a quiet mid-life crisis. Silva reveals her inner turmoil slowly through the small, slightly disturbing details of her daily routine. With the family out of the house, Raquel silences her vacuum cleaner to try on a sweater belonging to matriarch Pilar (Claudia Celedón). Later, she is shown purchasing the same sweater in a shop on her day off. She changes the sheets of teenager Lucas (Agustín Silva), her “favourite,” who has just discovered masturbation. There is a hint of a smirk when Raquel notices the evidence. Her attachment to the family is believable, but familiar to an unsettling degree.
Raquel’s crippling headaches and bitter conflicts with eldest daughter Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro) call for additional help, and so Raquel is forced into sharing the family with three successive maids, all of whom find themselves locked out of the house and framed for various incidents. Raquel takes to getting on her hands and knees to scrub the bathroom with harsh disinfectants every time one of the new maids takes a shower. One maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), seems to successfully break through Raquel’s nasty demeanour and makes an unexpected query. “What did they do to you?” she asks tearfully, and we’re suddenly curious too.
Raquel’s interactions with the three new maids are intriguing due to Silva’s reticence to give away her psychology all at once. Raquel is clearly disturbed, but we are meeting her at the end of a mental firestorm that everyone she lives with has preferred to keep hidden behind the class division. Because of the dark tone Silva sustains throughout most of his script, we are always waiting to see exactly what Raquel is going to do next, how her employers are going to take it and the toll it will have on her relationship with the children she values. It’s a terrific performance from Saavedra, who always appears as though she’s poised to reveal something we aren’t ready for.
The film’s third act is simple and realistic. There’s nothing flashy about “The Maid,” but in that way it reflects its character, gradually stirring our compassion and apprehension at once until we realize that this is a lost soul as worthy of being noticed as anyone else. Basing the film on the master-servant dynamic of his own boyhood home in Santiago, Silva has provided an earnest, observant consideration of what can happen to a person’s emotional state when they spend half of their life in somebody’s else house. It makes a case for family being necessary for personhood, even if the conventional idea of family isn’t what we’re able to carry with us.
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