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Housekeeper Makes Herself at Home

MOVIE REVIEW
The Maid (2009)

The-maid-sebastian-silva-catalina-saavedra
Elephant Eye Films

Not every movie needs has-beens preening in front of great whacking explosions. It’s so refreshing to see a movie that knows the biggest changes in anyone's life come in quiet moments, and that grants the inner life of a maid as much respect as anyone else's.

In "The Maid," a smart film from Chile by Sebastián Silva, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has worked for the same family for 23 years: father Mundo (Alejandro Goic), mother Pilar (Claudia Celedón), daughter Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), teenage son Lucas (Agustín Silva) and two younger sons. She lives in a small room off the kitchen and wears her uniform with pride. Raquel has brought the children up from infancy and loves them to bits; the little boys still adore her, and even the moody teenagers treat her with respect. Their home is Raquel's kingdom; she knows every inch of every thing in it, and has cleaned it in one way or another until her fingers bleed. But lately she is not managing the large house and all her duties as well as she used to, so Pilar makes a difficult decision and takes the coward's way out by telling Raquel over the phone — the family is going to hire a second maid.

Mr. Silva clearly understands the dynamics which play out when someone else is hired to manage parts of your personal life, and how difficult it can be when there is no difference from your home and your workplace. How do you mark out your own personal territory within someone else's space? How do you draw boundaries with someone whom you've hired to love your children? While most of the film takes place in the family home, the movie is in no way claustrophobic or frightening such as "The Milk of Sorrow," another recent South American movie about seismic shifts in the life of a maid.

Raquel's main problem is that after so long in the job she has forgotten that it is just that — a job. She might love and look after the kids, but they are not her kids. Raquel has to bring Mundo and Pilar breakfast in bed every morning — the class issues are obvious, so obvious they don't need to be spelled out; and everyone in the movie is aware of them, and mutually sensitive about it. When Raquel collapses in the master bedroom one morning, the family's care and concern for her is immediate. Mundo and Pilar leap to her side in unified uproar, before the entire family carries Raquel to the car, the parents shouting instructions, the kids fussing at Raquel, who is barely conscious but insistent she is fine. The family members are good people and good to her, but Raquel has forgotten she has a life of her own.

Mr. Silva, who co-wrote the screenplay with Pedro Peirano, shows that it's been a long time since a movie made by men understands how women think. When the new maid joins, and then the next one, and the next, Raquel fights her corner in very feminine ways. Men would fight or sabotage each other; women in a movie made by less intelligent men would pull at each other's hair, weep and shriek. Mr. Silva is smarter. Raquel says nothing directly, but using little more than some cleaning gloves, a door key and selective deafness, manages to wrest total control for herself over the house and the actions of everyone in it. She denies she's doing this, of course, but as each maid leaves she allows herself a little smile. Ms. Saavedra handles a difficult part with intelligence — no matter how unpleasant Raquel gets, she has our sympathy, because Mr. Saavedra shares with us her every thought.

It's only when Lucy (Mariana Loyola) is hired that Raquel meets her match. It's also possibly the first time she has ever has the chance to observe someone, in her same position, who handles herself in a completely different and positive way. Lucy is younger, with round glasses and a cheerful smile; she takes the household's measure instantly and instinctively knows how to handle Raquel. Most importantly, and to Pilar's surprise, Lucy goes jogging every night.

This is a subtle and intelligent movie, which knows that from small acorns mighty oaks grow. Watch for Mundo and his golf clubs, or the kids' reactions when one of Mundo's projects is destroyed. Notice the location of the birthday parties at the start and the end of the film, and the business of the gift of a sweater, and how much Pilar notices herself. Mr. Silva underplays these moments, a sign of directorial confidence unusual in a first full-length film. It also signifies an awful lot of trust — trust that his characters are rounded enough for us to understand, trust in his actors to develop the nuances appropriately, and trust that all the parts of the film have come together without any need to overdo the metaphors.

The shoestring budget is obvious in the lighting, but the rest of the movie — including Sergio Armstrong's unobtrusive cinematography — does not show any obvious signs of penny-pinching. The casting by Cristina Aburto is also very good. The family is completely believable both individually and as a loving, rowdy group. The contrast between Ms. Saavedra's pinched face and Ms. Loyola's broad smile is immediate, and the parade of other maids which come through are economically distinguishable both from each other and as their own persons. This is quite possibly the first film in world cinema history dedicated to the director's family's maids. This is completely appropriate and really sweet.

THE MAID

Opens on Aug. 27 in Britain.

Directed by Sebastián Silva; written by Mr. Silva and Pedro Peirano; director of photography, Sergio Armstrong; edited by Danielle Fillios; art director, Pablo González; produced by Gregorio González; released by Artificial Eye. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. This film is rated 15.

WITH: Catalina Saavedra (Raquel), Claudia Celedón (Pilar), Mariana Loyola (Lucy), Alejandro Goic (Mundo), Anita Reeves (Sonia), Delfina Guzmán (Abuela), Andrea García-Huidobro (Camila) and Mercedes Villaneuva (Mercedes).

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