If Luis Buñuel had joined forces with the Dogme 95 movement and moved to modern-day Santiago, Chile, he might have made a movie like The Maid (Elephant Eye Films), the second feature film from the promising 30-year-old Chilean director Sebastian Silva. This portrait of a domestic servant on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown combines Buñuel's unsparing gaze at bourgeois manners with the gritty social realism of the Dogme movement. And it's funny—bleakly, blackly so at times, but also tenderly funny with flashes of genuine compassion. The Maid is among the best films I've seen this year.
The Chilean television actress Catalina Saavedra gives an astonishing performance as Raquel, the live-in maid and nanny for a well-off family. As a middle-aged virgin (the first scene of the film is her 41st birthday celebration), she's lived in the Valdez's spare room for more than half of her life. Although she's dour-faced and perpetually cranky, Raquel loves the three children she helped raise to adolescence, and they love her. But it's a prickly and difficult love, subject to constant invisible constraints—after just a few bites of that birthday cake, she gets up to clear and wash the dishes. The tightly wound Raquel is subject to headaches and dizzy spells. When she collapses on her way up the stairs, the mother of the family, Pilar (Claudia Celedón) insists on hiring a second servant to help with the heavy chores. But feeling her already circumscribed power diminished, Raquel digs in her heels and decides to sabotage the new hire any way she can. (Her tactics are simple but effective: Whenever the new maid steps outside, Raquel locks the door and refuses to let her back in. To add insult to injury, she insists on scouring the shower with bleach every time the interloper bathes.)
After she drives away two consecutive maids by this method, Raquel has another medical crisis and winds up in the hospital. On her return, there's a new maid in the house: Lucy (Mariana Loyola), who, unlike her predecessors, is unfazed by Raquel's passive-aggressive tricks and air of stony hostility. Lucy's openness and generosity, and her sheer refusal to give up, begin to crack open Raquel's previously impenetrable shell. Lucy even invites Raquel to travel for Christmas to her hometown, where a randy uncle would be more than happy to introduce Raquel to the pleasures of the flesh.
Silva filmed the movie in the house he grew up in, where his family really did have live-in maids named Raquel and Lucy. (In this interview, he describes screening his film for them.) The upstairs/downstairs plotline, which could easily have made for a heavy-handed "message film" about the plight of domestic servants and the crass abuses of the ruling class, somehow manages to do justice both to the family's and Raquel's points of view. Raquel is unbearable to live with, a tyrant to her co-workers and a potential danger to the children. (She's certainly, shall we say, less than nurturing with the kitten the family tries to adopt.) At the same time, being Raquel would be far more hellish than living with her; her opportunities for love, joy, and freedom are so limited by economic circumstance, education, and her own low expectations that when she has a rare day off, all she can think to do is to buy a sweater just like one owned by her employer.
There isn't a scene in The Maid that feels predictable or forced; if Silva is capable of this level of finesse at age 30, he's one to watch out for. But it's Catalina Saavedra who really takes it to the next level, transforming in the course of the film from a glowering witch—almost a figure from a horror movie or fairy tale—to a person with desires, hopes, and even, in the film's thrilling last shot, an unexpected hobby. From time to time, you meet someone like the pre-transformation Raquel: a person who seems so beaten down by life that she's disappeared into her social function, her selfhood all but inaccessible. After seeing The Maid, you'll never look at that person in quite the same way again.