Thursday, March 10, 2011

La Nana (The Maid) - An Arresting character study

From Chile, comes an intimate portrayal of a live in domestic help and the household she is part of, well not quite. Director Sebastian Silva's 'The Maid' is the story of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), working for an upper middle class family with three children, the oldest girl a young adult, in Santiago, Chile. The movie opens with an expressionless Raquel sitting at the small kitchen table partaking of her dinner. For a moment, she glances up and meets the camera head on with her eyes and holds our gaze. It is a disquieting moment and sets the mood of a movie where the trajectory is never where we expect it to go.

In the dining room we are introduced to the family members, lighting candles on a cake and wrapping gifts. The occasion is Raquel's 41st Birthday and they are having a surprise celebration for her. The family is kind, thoughtful and appreciate Raquel's loyalty of over 20 years since their first child was born. The mother, Pilar (Claudia Celedon) is especially caring, treating Raquel like a family member, except that the roles are set and the lines are drawn, though a little blurry, as often happens with a person living in your home for decades, intimate to every detail of your life and family inside the house and yet not quite a part of it. 

Raquel gets up early morning, cleans her bed, showers, dons the  maid's uniform and goes on to make breakfast for the entire family, wake the children and get the younger ones ready for school and brings breakfast trays for the elders in bed. The day then wears on with the usual dusting, vacuuming, cleaning of rooms and so on. The chores are endless and Raquel approaches them all with the same dour faced determination. But something is wrong. She is getting frequent headaches, her solution to which lie in the medicines she keeps guzzling down. But Pilar feels her to be overworked and wants to hire another maid to help her with the day's work. And here the movie takes off and goes in unexpected directions.

What Silva set out to make was a character study of a person who has little contact with her own family (we hear her mother call her a couple of times and the conversations are stilted), adopting the family she works for as her own and leading an extremely solitary, confined, almost claustrophobic life within the walls of the house she works, in the midst of a full family. She almost makes a territorial claim on this household of hers and when a new maid (Mercedes) is brought in, her fury knows no bounds. The tricks she delves in to make the other woman's life miserable are petty, mean and yet I could never hate her, even when she locks Mercedes out of the house for hours, hides the small cat she is to take care of in a drawer. Raquel had my attention through all her internal rages which are set in the lines of her face, the pursing of her lips, narrowing of those eyes, jutting of the chins, shoulders hunched, ready for battle. Why is she like that, probably because she knows no other way. She seems never to have grown up from the girl who finds a perverse pleasure in petty power games with opponents, into a woman who with age and gained wisdom adopts a milder nature. Raquel never seems to have gotten the opportunity to learn in the world.

Sure enough Mercedes leaves, followed by another feisty older maid. Strangely, even when the kids figure out the reason behind the departure and tell the mother, Pilar cannot and will not let go of Raquel.   The loyalty of those long years of service bind. At this point, we know not the direction which the movie will take....will Raquel go crazy amidst her headaches, conflicting emotions and maybe even take a knife to the family members. But where this movie heads instead is profound, deeply stirring and finally the only human direction it could have taken, with the introduction of a third maid Lucy (played by the luminous Mariana Loyola). She is level headed, a no nonsense person with tremendous empathy and wisdom. And Raquel finally meets her match.

The Maid is defined by good performances from the entire cast. Loyola shines in her supporting act and so does Celedon, But this movie is essentially Catalina Saavedra's and she is fascinating in each detail, from the expressions on her face, the correct body language and in the humanity which finally shines through in the tremendously lonely woman. Saavedra won a best actress award at the Sundance festival as well as other international awards.

Silva adopts a documentary style of filming with the use of hand held cameras and close, intimate shots of people, their faces and the many expressions, their actions...nothing is allowed to escape us. He shot this film in the very house he grew up in Santiago and has dedicated this movie to the two maids who worked for his family. He knew his way around the subject from the ground up and this is evident in his mature handling of a subject which is mostly relegated to genre films, not of the artistic variety. Silva and his movie have won awards around the world at film festivals, well deservedly so.

At the conclusion of the movie, I wanted to give Raquel a hug. And if I was living in a country where the live in maid or even the maid who comes and works for us daily was prevalent, I would have given mine a big hug. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, we forget they are as human as us and not just workhorses. This movie might just be that reminder.

Available on DVD.

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