Served: 'The Maid' cleans up with unpredictable storytelling, fresh humor and authentic warmth. (Photo courtesy Elephant Eye Films)

Chilean Film 'The Maid' and the Liberation of a Genre

Dennis Harvey November 13, 2009

We think we recognize Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), the titular figure in writer-director Sebastian Silva’s The Maid, right away. She’s a familiar fictive type: The treacherous servant, suspicious, resentful, manipulative, surely up to no good as far as the welfare of her upscale Santiago employers are concerned. They’re privileged, pretty, relatively care-free. She’s plain, middle-aged, and not at all taken in by the condescending pretense of her being almost "one of the family," even when they celebrate her birthday at dinner one night. A dinner she nonetheless cooks and serves.

We know where this is headed, or think we do. The disgruntled domestic is a menacing staple of melodrama. The notorious real-life case of the Papin sisters, who inexplicably murdered their mistress and her daughter in 1933 France (even they couldn’t or wouldn’t explain why), has inspired a number of dramatic treatments since—most famously Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids. (The best related film is Nancy Meckler’s 1994 English-language Sister My Sister.)

Some of the great villains in screen history are of a similar ilk. They include Dirk Bogarde’s insidious butler—who deftly reduces his genteel young "master" to quivering-jello slave—in Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s 1963 The Servant. No less imposing, if trapped in a pulpier flick, was Rebecca DeMornay’s avenging nanny-from-hell in 1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

There’s a primal bourgeoise fear underlining all such tales. Expecting both subservience and gratitude from their underlings, a variably liberal-guilt-plagued ruling class has always secretly dreaded that moment when "the help" might rise up and prefer cutting a dainty throat to taking one more order.

At first glance, Raquel looks like another poisonous snake-in-the-house, full of venom, poised to strike. She’s held her live-in position with the Valdes family long enough to have carved out an identity and place that vexes her, yet which she’ll defend from takeover like a rapid badger. She dotes on their teenage son Lucas (Agustin Silva), but is overtly antagonistic toward teenage daughter Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro)—albeit cunningly enough so that the other Valdes’s think Camila’s complaints are baseless.

Glamorous, frivolous society wife Pilar (Claudia Celedon) may be deaf to those complaints in large part because it’s rather obvious she’s quite terrified of the maid she insists on treating as "family." Master of the house Mundo (Alejandro Goic) is oblivious to all this conflict—he simply can’t be bothered. However, even he begins to pay attention when Raquel’s plottings take a more drastic turn. The cause for her stepped-up misbehavior is Pilar’s insistence on hiring another domestic to assist the overworked Raquel. Far from being pleased, the latter views this development as a deliberate encroachment on her territory, which she’s prepared to defend by any means necessary. Murder and mayhem ensue.

Or maybe they don’t. One of The Maid’s principal pleasures is the way in which it leads you to expect particular narrative consequences, only to end up somewhere else entirely—somewhere at least as credible and satisfying as the nastiness its black-comedy buildup suggested as our destination.

It’s not often we get a Chilean feature in U.S. release, though if this second feature by Silva is an indication of things to come, perhaps he’ll singlehandedly end that drought. While it unfolds with a natural simplicity, The Maid is quite complex: Mixing social commentary and grotesque humor in a quasi-verite package (the lunging hand-held camera explores every nook and cranny of its location, which is the director’s actual home), juggling performances that range from the seemingly improvised to the near-theatrically outsized—Saavedra’s award winning Raquel is an ogress capable of being hilariously appalling one minute and poignantly pitiful the next.

The Maid has picked up a slew of prizes on the festival circuit; it’s the quintessential Little Film That Could. Writing this review as such kazillion-dollar, FX-dominated spectacles as 2012 and Avatar approach release, it occurs that Silva’s no-budget film illustrates all the entertainment virtues money can’t buy. To whit: Character depth, unpredictable storytelling, a palpably lived-in milieu, fresh humor and authentic warmth. You could blow up the Earth a thousand times via CGI and never come up with anything as relatabely miraculous as The Maid’s long, lovely final shot.