An obsessively diligent, emotionally remote domestic causes all sorts of trouble for herself and the family she works for in Chilean helmer Sebastian Silva’s taut second feature, “The Maid.” A tense, engrossing character study with a sometimes boldly repellent performance by Catalina Saavedra in the title role, this sharply cut gem reps a very accessible item for offshore auds and could parlay appreciative reviews into a smattering of international playdates. “The Maid” cleaned up at Sundance, copping the World Cinema grand jury prize and an acting award for Saavedra.
While Silva’s screenplay (co-written by Pedro Peirano) expertly dissects the tensions enveloping the members of a comfortably middle-class Latin American clan and their live-in maid of 23 years, it’s less a story of class differences than a tough, nuanced and finally compassionate portrait of an individual who thwarts compassion more often than not. Frumpy, plain-looking Raquel (Saavedra) is a model of domestic efficiency, the kind of person who reliably sets the table for breakfast the night before and disinfects the shower after every use. She’s also perpetually sullen, borderline antisocial and intensely territorial.
“They are my family,” she says of her employers with fierce devotion, and indeed, Raquel respects the master of the house, Mundo Valdes (Alejandro Goic), and his wife Pilar (Claudia Celedon), and treats their teenage son Lucas (Agustin Silva) with big-sisterly affection. But Raquel brooks no interference when it comes to maintaining order in the household, and her rigid enforcement of the rules puts her increasingly at odds with the Valdes’ headstrong young daughter, Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro).
With Raquel suffering dizzy spells and overworking herself to the point of exhaustion, Pilar opts to hire another maid to help her out. As could be expected, Raquel bitterly resents this decision and makes life hell for Peruvian au pair Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva), who’s quickly driven away and replaced by the much older, more resilient Sonia (Anita Reeves). Helmer Silva (2007’s “La vida me mata”) skillfully raises the film’s emotional temperature in these sequences, which churn with passive-aggressive comedy, impeccably observed detail and brutal violence, both emotional and physical.
Unfolding almost entirely within the house’s walls, “The Maid” achieves and sustains an impressive degree of claustrophobic momentum. Sergio Armstrong’s handheld camerawork emphasizes the close quarters in which the characters find themselves, and the use of natural lighting and overall visual roughness, far from seeming off-putting or pretentious, are well suited to Silva’s dramatic purposes.
Saavedra is riveting as a servant whose unblinking focus on her routine masks a profound loneliness. While Silva could have easily followed the character’s neuroses to their darkest conclusions, his optimism prevails with the arrival of a third back-up maid, Lucy (a wonderful Mariana Loyola), who gives the film an unexpected jolt of life.
The entire ensemble is note-perfect, and all the characters, whether upstairs or downstairs, are given their proper due. Pic slyly acknowledges the declining Latin American tradition of having a maid in a few scenes involving Pilar’s haughty mother (Delfina Guzman).