Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Domestic Drama: The Maid

Raquel isn’t called a servant for nothing. She does all the menial chores the Valdes family cannot be bothered with. In return, she gets a measure of security and a nebulous sense of belonging within the household. It turns out that is enough to entitle her to act fairly crazy in Sebastian Silva’s Chilean drama The Maid (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

Raquel works like a dog and it seems to be taking a toll on her health. If not palatial, the Valdes’s house would probably be considered quite large by the standards of most Santiago residents. The Valdes children also keep Raquel jumping, particularly the surly teenaged daughter and a son in full throws of puberty. Pilar Valdes, the lady of the house, wants to hire additional help, but Raquel resists the suggestion, fearing competition for the family’s favor.

When her mistress finally hires a second maid, Raquel does not take it lying down, launching a cruel campaign of psychological warfare against Mercedes, an innocent country girl. Her successor, Sonia, the proverbial bitter old maid, puts up more of a fight, but ultimately fares little better against Raquel. However, when the tough, good-humored Lucy signs on, Raquel may have met her match.

The uneven Maid incorporates facets of many different film genres, without fully committing to any particular one. At times, a psychological drama seems to be unfolding, as Raquel plays her petty cat-and-mouse games. Yet, Silva never tries to build an atmosphere of suspense and keeps the mood relatively light, given the film's conflicts and neuroses. In a sense, it is a family drama, but it explicitly questions the legitimacy of Raquel’s position within the Valdes family unit.

Certainly, there are also aspects of the class-conscious social-issue film as Raquel tirelessly toils for Pilar, a lady who lunches, and her husband Mundo, who spends all his time playing golf and building model ships. Still, the Valdeses come across as more indulgent than exploitative, trying to lighten Raquel’s load while tolerating her sometimes questionable behavior.

Silva delights in discomfiting the audience with one uncomfortable scene after another. As a result, Catalina Saavedra deserves great credit for giving such an unselfconscious performance as Raquel. She keeps Raquel real and expresses her deeply concealed pain and insecurity. She also has several nude scenes, which is no selling point for the film. She is nicely counterbalanced by the vaguely Sarah Palin-looking Mariana Loyola, who brings much needed doses humor and energy to the deliberately awkward proceedings, as the likable Lucy.

Though Silva’s drably realistic style is nothing particularly noteworthy, he captures some very memorable screen performances. The Maid is an odd little film that really sticks in your head, but you’re not sure why. It opens this Friday (10/16) at the Angelika.