Thursday, July 08, 2010

Catalina Saavedra in the title role as Raquel. Photo: Elephant Eye Pictures.

Film Review #230: The Maid/ La Nana
2009/DVD 2010
Director: Sebastiàn Silva
Cast: Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedón, Mariana Loyola

How different the second surprise birthday party is! Sebastiàn Silva’s The Maid opens with a profoundly reluctant Raquel, just turned 41, refusing to come out of the kitchen for the lit cake and presents she knows await in her employers’ dining room after supper. After all, she has been with the Valdez family for 23 years, since before the birth of the oldest, Camila (Andrea García-Huidobros). Mundo, the father (Alejandro Goìc), furiously rings the hand bell they use to summon her – “Can’t we move this along?” he asks, impatient to get back to his ship model-building – and the mother, Pilar (Claudia Celedón), sends Raquel’s favorite among the four children, Lucas (Augustín Silva), to fetch her. He decides, and reports back to the table, that she is “too embarrassed.” Eventually drawn into the moment when the family bursts out with cheers and applause – presumably this beneficent ritual surprise occurs annually like clockwork – Raquel reacts with an equal mixture of pleasure and resentment. This turns into ammunition later when she cuts short a call from her own mother, saying, “I have to go – we are celebrating with the family!” She savors this especially since she thinks she’s just fended off Pilar’s suggestion to hire a second maid to help her.

Near to the film’s end comes the second surprise party, which Raquel herself has organized for that second maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola). Bestowing a genuine surprise out of real though unexpected affection, Raquel turns the format she’s endured from the Valdezes into a moment of enthusiasm everyone shares. Like the first party, this one is also followed by an unwelcome announcement: Lucy has decided to leave and return to her family. Raquel is bereft. There’s been quite a lot of water, as they say, under the bridge.

The Maid is set in Santiago, Chile, in the filmmaker’s own parents’ gated compound where, he informs us before the end credits by way of an old family photo, there once really had been two maids named Raquel and Lucy and a favorite son who was an acute observer of domestic relations. The boy Lucas – played by Silva’s son – is in part so appealing because we feel Silva means him as a sort of self-portrait and, while the boy empathetically describes Raquel as “embarrassed,” Silva’s willing to recall his younger self as equally so. One of the running comic threads here is Raquel’s almost daily task of washing the 12-year-old’s sheets and pajamas. When she finally complains to Pilar about this extra work, the boy’s mother chastises him about masturbation. Stiff-faced and mortified, Lucas marches outside to find Raquel – Silva drolly has her watering the lawn with a hose for this scene – where he delivers a single explosive word, “Thanks!”

There are other moments that explore the spectrum of gratitude in this film where what’s given and owed is sometimes so ambiguous and class boundaries can be so abruptly declared in small ways. Determined to defend her corner of the universe against encroachment, Raquel – prone to headaches, dizzy spells, fits of stiff-faced rage and some emerging mental instability – sent two second maids packing before Lucy, one a gentle girl, the other a battle-ax. But Lucy disarms Raquel – intriguingly she wonders what the Valdez family has “done to” Raquel – with humor, kindness, an invitation home for Christmas, the promise that she “won’t be here forever.”

Astute, witty and blessed by excellent performances, The Maid is the second film made by Silva and his writing partner, Pedro Peirano. Premiered at Sundance in early 2009, it took a special jury award and won Saavedra the best actress prize. Released here theatrically last October, The Maid earned some acclaim – the National Board of Review named it among the five best foreign language films of 2009 and Saavedra was nominated for a number of year-end awards – but fell short of the Oscars. These days, not making that cut halts marketing efforts for most foreign films, and may make the difference in whether one-screen indie movie houses like Manlius can feasibly book a title. But two weeks ago Oscilloscope released the DVD.

Claudio Celedón worked with Silva and Peirano on their 2007 debut film; the three, along with Saavedra, reunite for the just-completed Old Cats, due out later this year. The ensemble is a taste you’ll want to acquire sooner rather than later.

This review appears in the July 7, 2010 print issue of “The Eagle” in Syracuse, New York, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column. “The Maid” on DVD is available at Netflix, Video on Demand and rental stores.