Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Keep Your Eyes on The Maid

The Maid (La Nana)
Directed by Sebastián Silva
Running Time: 96 minutes
Originally Released: January 17, 2009 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * ½ (out of four)

I’ve seen several films lately that can’t be fully appreciated until the end credits begin to roll. These movies are slow-paced and require some patience on the part of the viewer. It is only by reaching the later parts of the movie that the seemingly uneventful scenes dominating the first half of the film reveal their significance, not because something more was going on than meets the eye, but simply because of the contrast that those early scenes provide to the ultimate direction of the film. The Maid is a prime example of this, starting off slow and serious and eventually proving a tale of redemption, self-respect, friendship, love, and belonging.

For a dutiful 23 years, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been the live-in maid for the Valdes family. You could even say she’s one of the family … sort of. She makes the family meals, then sits by herself in the other room and eats her own food, staring blankly ahead at the wall, her only dinner companion. It’s not that the Valdes’ don’t care for Raquel. They do—some of them more than others—but at the end of the day, she really is just the maid. Pilar (Claudia Celedón), the mother of the family, feels some loyalty toward Raquel, which is why she doesn’t want to fire her even though her performance has suffered lately, in part due to a series of dizzy spells, in part due to a negative attitude. Instead, Pilar decides to bring on some additional help, which still upsets Raquel. As additional maids are brought in, Raquel does her best to drive them away, and largely succeeds. Her favorite tactic is locking a new maid out of the house, then hurrying upstairs to vacuum so she can pretend she doesn’t hear the new maid pounding on the front door. Meanwhile, Raquel savors those few and far between moments when the Valdes family shows her some genuine affection. Most of this comes from the teenage son, Lucas (Agustín Silva), who still occasionally calls Raquel by the nickname he gave her as a boy and who remains susceptible to bouts of innocent horseplay. Little of it comes from Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), the oldest child, whose maturity has displaced the naïve childhood sentiment that Raquel is anything more than an employee, a change in attitude that the maid resents. As such, Raquel likes to vacuum outside of Camila’s bedroom door first thing in the morning, especially if Camila has explicitly asked her not to.

The Maid is a character study, and a very interesting one in that the character under the cinematic microscope is one whose thoughts remain largely hidden from the audience. Raquel keeps to herself, saying very little to anyone other than the new maids, over whom she exerts her authority in short, barking bursts. The sad thing is, Raquel’s silence is a byproduct of her work environment. Despite being physically implanted in the Valdes’ family home, where she spends nearly 24 hours of her day, Raquel really has no one to listen to her. At the same time, being the Valdes’ maid is all Raquel has, and it is a position of which she is fiercely protective. She clings to her job despite the lack of emotional compensation it affords her, and as such, she has become embittered. A good portion of The Maid is spent on Raquel quietly seeking revenge on those who invade her territory, with Raquel’s actions sometimes being drastic enough that we question her sanity. Raquel isn’t pleasant company for the audience to keep, but wallowing in her misery proves a worthwhile venture for where the movie ultimately takes us. Without giving too much away, another maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), finally comes along who manages to exhibit some caring for Raquel. Set against the film’s earlier dreariness, this glimmer of hope nearly blinds us, as it does Raquel. The slightest sign of Raquel warming up to another human being is almost enough to make you stand up and cheer.

For her portrayal of Raquel, Saavedra has justly received several acting awards from various film festivals across the globe. She is nothing short of perfect, and she does more with a dejected stare than most actors can do with an entire movie. (The stare in question became the movie poster, though even having seen the poster, its appearance in the first minute or so of the film caused me to laugh heartily.) Hailing from Chile, The Maid itself has also won various best picture awards and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Golden Globes. The accolades are well-deserved. The Maid is an inspiring film. What’s more, it’s a film that, despite its acerbic beginnings, inspires friendliness and encourages us to be patient with those who are less than kind. It’s the kind of film I wish more people would see than ever will. While I give it only three-and-a-half stars due to a couple of technical flaws and some minor narrative issues, it may very well be that I am underrating it.

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