‘The Maid’: All in the family

October 15, 2009

The power struggle in Sebastian Silva’s “The Maid” is less about class (though that’s an element) than turf. What makes it fascinating is how easily the employer cedes her authority to the employee.


Her name is Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) and she’s been with the Valdez family family for more than 20 years, since just after their college-age daughter was born. In the very first scene, you can feel the tension in the relationship –though her employers remain clueless, convinced they’re treating Raquel as family by celebrating her birthday.


But it’s obvious, even as she sits alone in the kitchen, eating her dinner and ignoring the Valdezes’ entreaties to come out to the dining room and be surprised with presents and a birthday cake. Her face a joyless blank – it’s her perpetual expression, taken to different degrees of hardness and opacity – she hunches over her food, shrugging off the well-meant (if patronizing) invitation until she is physically dragged to the celebration by her favorite of the Valdez children.


We shortly see the essence of her life with this family: a tiny room with a bed, a small TV, a couple of stuffed animals and an alarm clock. It’s there she takes a call on her cell from her mother, wishing her a happy birthday.


The power struggle in the house isn’t aggressive or overt. Rather, it’s the little things: Raquel loudly vacuums outside the bedroom of the princessy oldest daughter, after being asked not to. Or she points out to her mistress, Pilar (Claudia Celedon), that she has to wash the oldest son’s sheets every day because he masturbates messily every night. Or she walks in on the master of the house as he’s exiting the shower. Talk about shrinkage.


As the saying goes, no man is a hero to his own valet. Raquel knows the family’s foibles and uses them subtly to her own advantage.


Raquel has secrets of her own: sometimes-crippling migraines that occasionally keep her from finishing her work. But when Pilar takes the logical step of hiring a second maid to help out, Raquel rebels. She bosses the new girl territorially, makes a show of using bleach to disinfect the bathroom they share after the new girl uses it – and every time the new girl makes the mistake of stepping outside to get the mail or run an errand, Raquel locks the door and ignores her pleas to be let back in – until the girl quits.


Yet such is the hold she has on this family – or perhaps it’s the family’s inertia – that, rather than fire Raquel, they run through two more maids to find an assistant she can live with.


Silva’s film is less about the story than this unhappy character, entombed in a shell of her own devising, struggling to maintain a status quo that doesn’t really make her happy but which she’s used to. Eventually, she makes a friend who shows her how to live her life to include her job, rather than letting the job define her existence.


Silva also lets the tension within the household move the film forward. Even when nothing major is happening, feelings are bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to erupt in ways that are unexpected or unrelated to the source of irritation.


Saavedra gives as deadpan a performance as anyone since Buster Keaton. She acts with her eyes, using her blocky frame to initiate sudden chaotic bursts of activity.


“The Maid” should be required viewing for anyone who’s ever managed an unhappy employee – and will ring loud bells for anyone who’s ever been one. Which is most of us – right?


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