11 Jun 2011
A current theme running through much of contemporary South American cinema is the distinct class factor of them and us, of those that have and those that have not in a very class conscious continent. Lucretia Martel's haunting 'The Headless Women' and Jorge Michel Grau's satirical horror debut 'We Are What We Are' for example highlight the almost invisible underclass struggling in these growing economies, whilst Silva's The Maid takes a different approach on the same issue, focusing the attention on the repressed figure of Raquel, a live in maid to an upper middle class family in Chile.
Striking as it is to western audiences to note the house servant culture that still dominates in South America, Silva picks up the mantle from Luis Bunuel's Mexican films (Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel for example) and captures the inevitable problems that arise when one is in service of another under the same roof; in this case a live-in maid and the same family she has served, help raise, cook and cleaned for over the past 20 years, how they strive to live together and the crushing psychological affects such an arrangement can entail.
The tone is set from the very first scene beginning with Raquel's birthday for which, at the request of the families children, a muted and awkward surprise party is thrown in her honour. It makes for squirm worthy watching, presents are given, awkwardness abounds (who cleans up after a maid's birthday?) and formalities are still kept in this all too uncomfortable scene. All which makes The Maid sound like some sort of gritty social-realist diatribe about the oppressor and the oppressed which could not be farther from Silva's gentle character study and subtle interplay of hand gestures, muted emotions and repressed feelings. Raquel (wonderfully played by Catalina Saavedra, who incidentally has made a living of playing maids in film and television in her homeland) from the first moment we meet her; eyeballing the audience, in a scene from the film poster above, with a look that conveys her despair, confused and lost, represents a soul squandered and an identity in deep crisis. Her very character is non-defined, she lives to serve the family and her proximity to their lives have stunted her own identity, cringe worthy scene follows another as these boundaries are tested and explored, Raquel in denying herself her true self starts to feel the burden and makes herself ill.
In essence The Maid acts like a psychological thriller, Raquel becomes so obsessed by her standing in the household, seen by the family that employs her as some sort of distant relative that she starts to act out, in turn both needy yet resentful, making enemies with the eldest daughter, losing her temper and fighting everyone on all fronts as her surroundings become all the more confusing and oppressive. Meanwhile her employers, all too confused themselves at this predicament, try to placate the irritated Raquel by tiptoeing around her, naturally this highly strung ordeal brings about her illness and bound to her bed under doctor orders the family decide that the load is too heavy for Raquel and suggest extra help, a situation that sends her into manic overload.