Film Review: The Maid

Small-scale but absorbing drama from Chile about an upper-middle-class family and their territorial maid.

It’s rare that a filmmaker succeeds commercially with a not so young, not so bright, not so pretty female as the key protagonist—Fellini comes immediately to mind with wife Giulietta Masina. But Chilean sophomore director Sebastián Silva delivers a modest gem thanks to his eponymous domestic in The Maid, wholeheartedly played to dreary and exhilarating extremes with subtle notes in between by Catalina Saavedra.

The film is a remarkably immersive experience that exposes us to the intimacies of a privileged family and the anxieties of the unprivileged in their midst.

Silva, with a background in art, animation and a brief flirtation with Hollywood, skillfully mines aspects of human nature and class differences in his oh-so-droll, honest and surprising look at an upper-middle-class Santiago, Chile family and their longtime maid, who is almost family when she’s not subverting their best-laid plans for a well-run household. It’s the story of a gentle class war that ends in a self-realized peace.

Raquel (Saavedra), a simple woman of peasant stock and no family ties of her own, has been working for the prosperous, typical Valdez family for more than 20 years. There’s kindly matron Pilar (Claudia Celedón); her dutiful husband Mundo (Alejandro Goic), obsessed with a hobby of making model ships in a bottle; oldest son Lucas (Agustín Silva), a teen enduring the familiar hormonal rush; and uppity younger teen Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro), afflicted by snobbery and an easy annoyance with Raquel, her formidable adversary.

Pilar, perceiving the pressure on Raquel, brings on a string of women to help her with the household chores, but Raquel will have none of it. Operating covertly, she makes life insufferable for young Peruvian au pair Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva). When Mercedes flees the household, Pilar takes the advice of her upper-crust mom to hire the very seasoned Sonia (Anita Reeves), who is more of a match for the jealous and resentful Raquel. But when the two finally come to blows and Mundo’s latest model ship is destroyed (an effort of many months to create), it’s Sonia who gets the ax.

Finally, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), yet another housekeeper brought in to help Raquel, becomes the lucky charm when Raquel connects with someone closer to her age who is kindly, from a warm household, and who invites her could-be rival to spend Christmas with her family. The visit is life-changing for Raquel, who returns to the Valdezes far wiser and self-aware.
In spite of the modest scale and small framework, filmmaker Silva delivers heaps of well-observed humor, suspense, social and psychological insights and delicious entertainment.

While The Maid, a recent Sundance winner and New Directors/New Films selection, is a wonderful cinematic ride unto itself, it also whets the appetite for Silva’s next picture, perhaps another amusing close-up of the human condition laid bare and recognizable on both human and humane scales.