Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Maid

(La nana, Chile, 2009)

There was a time in my life when I had a cleaning service come to the house once a week and tidy things up. That’s my only experience of household help. Even that little bit made me uncomfortable. I think if I got rich I could get used to having employees to garden, clean, and polish the Rolls and feed the polo ponies, but I think I’d want to keep it on an employer/employee basis. Some rich people do it that way, but not, it seems, in Chile, where live-in maids come to work on a long-term basis and often are seen as part of the family. They never really can be, of course, which leads to some uncomfortable situations.

But this movie kept surprising me. You expect it to divide neatly between the bad, insensitive family and poor, abused Raquel, but it’s never quite that simple. Raquel has worked for this upper-middle-class family for over 20 years. She knows no other life. We begin with her 41st birthday party, which is awkward. There are family tensions all over the place. The mother sincerely loves Raquel, but will never be able to see the world through her eyes. And frankly, Raquel is starting to go a little crazy. When the mother hires someone to share the workload, Raquel declares war. She is defending her turf, all that she has. She drives the innocent little Peruvian girl away in tears, and even deals with the next helper, a crusty old cynic. But the third girl is too tough for her. She deals with Raquel’s aggression with love, which Raquel is powerless against. She finds herself, maybe for the first time in her life, with an actual friend who likes her simply for who she is. And then even that doesn’t go where you expect it to go …

This movie won awards all over the Spanish-speaking world, and at Sundance. Its center is an amazing performance by Catalina Saavedra, Oscar-worthy, in my opinion, backed up by a wonderful supporting performance by Mariana Loyola and, in fact, the entire cast. It was written and directed by Sebastián Silva, who filmed the whole thing in the actual house where he grew up, in a situation much like this. It is powerful, and understated, and intimate and observational. Don’t see it if you expect neat endings and pat resolutions. Real life is too messy for that. But if you like great acting and great writing, this is for you.