Domestic Disturbance

Sebastian Silva, The Maid, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 94 minutes.

WITHIN THE PAST FIVE YEARS, a boomlet of South American films about domestics has emerged, exploring the fraught push-pull between master and servant: Jorge Gaggero’s Live-In Maid (2004), in which una señora, reeling from the economic meltdown in Buenos Aires, owes her employee seven months’ back pay; Lucía Puenzo’s The Fish Child (2009), which, set in the same city, imagines a teenage bourgeoise and her maid as criminal lovers; and Sebastián Silva’s The Maid, an examination less of class clash in its Santiago, Chile, household than of the pathologies of internalized subservience.

Anchored by the courageous performance of Catalina Saavedra as Raquel, the titular domestic, Silva’s second film (which he wrote with Pedro Peirano) opens with an awkward forty-first birthday celebration for the devoted servant, thrown by her employers of twenty-three years, Mundo and Pilar Valdez (Alejandro Goic and Claudia Celedón), and their brood of four. Honoring Raquel becomes a fascinating set piece of passive-aggressive dynamics, highlighting the tension surrounding the maid’s place within the Valdez family. Is she an indispensable, full-fledged member of the clan, as Raquel—who, beyond the occasional call to her mother, appears to have no family life of her own—believes? Or a beloved caretaker who will nonetheless be forever banished to the kitchen to eat her meals alone? Never an economic or sociological dissection of the inherent imbalance in paying someone to tend to your children and clean up your dirt, Silva’s film is instead a psychological one, its protagonist stunted by disordered behavior.

The hazards of Raquel’s embrace of her servitude manifest themselves both physically—she suffers from exhaustion and frequent dizzy spells—and emotionally. Often remote, Raquel finds comfort in the three stuffed animals atop her twin bed and in the assiduousness with which she tackles her repetitive labor. She is fiercely territorial and often unlikable; when Pilar hires Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva), a younger Peruvian woman, to assist her, Raquel responds with sadistic mind games, locking the new employee out of the house and vigorously disinfecting the tub after Mercedes showers. Sonia (Anita Reeves), an older domestic, suffers similar torture.

Sergio Armstrong’s handheld camera work skillfully conveys the claustrophobia of the Valdez household, its two-story sprawl shrunken by the suffocating battle of wills between Raquel and teenage Camila Valdez (Andrea García-Huidobro), Raquel and Pilar, Raquel and the new employees, and the Valdez family among themselves. Silva maintains an uneasy tone throughout, leavening the domestic horror with mordant wit. A final-act shift toward hopefulness, spurred by the arrival of Lucy (Mariana Loyola), yet another servant hired when Raquel is bedridden after a bad dizzy spell, at first seems too easy, too contrived. But when the indefatigable Lucy responds to Raquel’s usual cruel maneuvers not with rage but with pity—“What did they do to you?”—Silva makes his sympathies (and condemnations) clear. Outwardly kind and frequently overindulgent of Raquel’s bad behavior, the Valdez family remind their employee every night that she can never dine at the table with them: Boundaries are dropped only to be rigidly enforced.

The Maid opens October 16 in New York City at the Angelika Film Center. For more details, click here.