The Maid (La nana)

Chile (2009) Dir. Sebastián Silva

Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been housemaid to the Valdes family for over twenty years and remains fiercely loyal to them at the expense of her own life and family. While she seems to get along best with eldest son Lucas (Agustín Silva) Raquel clashes constantly with eldest daughter Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro).

The years of being exposed to cleaning fluids with angry a break takes its toll on Raquel and after passing out the family decide to hire some help. Feeling threatened by someone else breaking up the family unit, of which Raquel believes she is an integral part, Raquel conspires to make sure she is the only maid the family can rely upon.

This award winning low key comic drama is a well observed character study of the emotional connection between a family and the domestic help that runs deeper then either expects it to. It has all the elements and potential to be a laugh out loud farce, with the long established veteran resorting to dirty tricks to ward of the younger competition but thankfully, director Sebastián Silva, in just his second film, instead takes a more intelligent and intimate approach to this premise, enriched by its pathos and humanity.

The film opens with the family celebrating Raquel’s birthday which she accepts with humility and coyness, preferring to keep this to herself while shutting out her own family for reasons never explored in the film. When the dizzy spells from prolonged exposure to the cleaning chemicals begins to show its effect, the family draft in some help at which Raquel immediately takes umbrage and launches a campaign to drive them out.

The first victim is a young Peruvian girl Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva), a rather easy prey for Raquel, followed by tough old battleaxe Sonia (Anita Reeves) whose arrival sees the tables are temporarily turned. After finally collapsing and being taken to hospital, Raquel has no choice but to rely on young idealistic Lucy (Mariana Loyola) to carry her work load while she recuperates.

Initially frosty towards the newcomer, a simple misunderstanding and a show of solidarity knocks a few bricks out of Raquel’s wall of defence and the two slowly bond, to the point that Raquel spends Christmas with Lucy and her family, stepping outside the bubble of Chez Valdes for the first time and experiencing a new phenomenon called life. From the unwanted but reluctantly accepted amorous advances from Lucy’s brother to the fresh air of the country side, Raquel begins to adopt a more positive attitude towards life and work and places huge value on the friendship she has formed with the much younger Lucy.

Quite why Lucy’s vitality should rub off on Raquel is anyone’s guess but the regeneration in the latter’s energy and aura is palpable as a result – a testament to the understated and subtle performance from lead actress Catalina Saavedra, who almost physically changes herself to manifest the moods of her weary but dogged character, making Raquel a fascinating and unlikely protagonist, and the numerous awards Saavedra won for this role well deserved.  

Much about Raquel’s life is cloaked in secrecy, while her relationship with the Valdes family, especially the mother Pilar (Claudia Celedón), who refuses to sack Raquel despite knowing everything she did to drive out the other servants, is equally open to speculation. A photo album of Raquel’s which Pilar sneaks a look at in her absence drops a hint as every picture to feature Camila has her face scrubbed out.

Is this a simple petty reaction to their perpetual clashes or is there a deeper reason? As for Raquel’s own family, she refuses to speak about them while phone conversations are terse and leave Raquel upset. Again, no further information is forthcoming but it is not an unfair assumption to make that the Valdes fill the gap Raquel’s own family has left in her.

Silva has given us a film which is simple on the surface but is much deeper underneath and is all the richer for it. The camerawork is intimate, sometimes even intrusive (the nude shower scenes admittedly felt voyeuristic) while the production is overall sparse but still buzzing with natural energy.

The relationships between the characters feel very authentic courtesy of the naturalistic and believable performances, even during the hokier moments of operation “Keep Those Other Bitches Away from My Job”.

An unassuming but endearing slice of realistic cinema, The Maid is life affirming and neatly introspective look at how the emotional connection in a family unit can run deep within those seemingly on the periphery. An understated little gem.