Latin America as a matriarchal society is a reality that’s alive and well in director Sebastian Silva’s ‘The Maid’ (La Nana). Raquel (Catalina Saveedra) has been a live-in maid for twenty-five years with the Valdes family, an outpost of affluence based in the Chilean capital. And from the looks and sounds of it in ‘The maid,’ women not only rule the coop but fathers are relegated to merely existing within their man-child role.
At a post-screening discussion at the Angelika Theatre last night, the filmmaker, Sebastian Silva, stated he wanted the father–he spends his time between clandestine trips to the golf course (in one scene his wife admonishes him gently, “you should think about playing less golf sometimes”) and building model ships–to appear like he’s just one of the kids.
Domestic workers are still very much the norm in Latin American countries. Many older apartments in Rio de Janeiro (the custom is prevalent there as well) have servant quarters and maids often have their own assistants. This kind of issue is bound to be over-simplified by some and even turned into a political issue, and therein lies the film’s appeal no. 1: a wee bit of old world versus new world values controversy.
The Valdes family is a normal family, and if there are skeletons in the closet, we are not made privy to them and they are not relevant. Ninety percent of ‘The Maid’ focuses on Raquel’s morose and tick-prone mug as she carries out the various tasks of the day and sometimes unleashes a torrent of spite on the child she favors less, Camila. Again, we’re not told where or how the antagonistic relationship began but violence between the live-in maid and the teenaged daughter at first threatens to collapse the household’s fragile equilibrium at any time.
Even though most of the film is focused on Raquel, we don’t know much about her at all. The director said afterwards that he wanted to reveal as little as possible about her–he also mentioned did say that the film was very much based on his life. Of Raquel we learn this: she takes medication for an unnamed affliction that makes her dizzy and faint (she falls a couple of times while serving the Valdeses their breakfast in bed), and her relationship with her mother, with whom she talks on the phone, is fraught with an emotional awkwardness whose nature we never learn about.
And in spite all these unknowns it’s refreshing not to be spoon-fed the subtext like in so many American movies, a reminder that movies ought to provoke thought, not annihilate it.
The rest of the time, the surly Raquel prepares breakfast for her charges, gets them ready for school and vaccums the house.
When he first about writing “The Maid,” Silva thought of Catalina Saveedra as the main character right away. But when he offered her the role, initially she said, “fuck you, man. I’ve done too many maids!”’ She actually had portrayed 17 different maids in sitcoms and soap operas. The maids on TV in Chile are always these girls showing their boobs and are just sort of silly characters. He told her, “I’m sorry, you’re just the perfect one for this role. I promise you this is going to be a different kind of maid.”
Silva filmed everything with a digital handheld camera (a Panasonic P2 HD ) in his own parents’ house and confirmed the many borrowings from his personal life. In a surprising bit of reversal, Silva declared that having live-in maids was akin to slavery and talked, in passing, of the unions’ organizing efforts back home in Chile. That’s where my attention started to wander. If a kid is issued from the linen-scented folds of the gentrified class and his film does not portray the parents as tyrannical, then what’s the problem? In fact, Pilar (Claudia Celedón) seems like Raquel’s strong-willed benefactor: she was protective of her maid when she had a spat with the eldest daughter, and in spite some of the strife the maid caused, Pilar refused to fire her claiming that you can’t do this to someone after twenty-five years of service.
I thought it was interesting how the post-screening discussion could almost have led to the audience organizing a drive for Chilean live-in maids justice, and yet the film itself hardly scratched at the perceived immorality of keeping servants around the house. Surely there are plenty of families around the world who mistreat their servants—one would have to be a cretin to ignore it. But there is an upside to this live-in maid business: people who otherwise would have little prospects are lifted out of poverty and are able to obtain better living conditions, albeit by tending to another human being’s needs and sometimes their whims. Silva told us that the first official screening of the film was for the two main characters of the movie, the real-life Raquel and her consort, Lucy (Mariana Loyola) whom the family hired to help Raquel in her chores after her dizzy spells began. The second screening was shown to about three-hundred maids in Santiago, and apparently there was a lot of hooting and hollering and appreciating. Shot in sixteen days in the filmmaker’s own house in Santiago (“my parents took off on vacation and I seized the opportunity”), Sebastian Silva, who had made one film before this, has been making the rounds of film festivals and is traveling with the film in the U.S. for its limited release roll-out.
Last night was quite a marvel to experience for this writer: to see a good Chilean film by a young and up-for-it filmmaker with promise and also to see independent film awarded and recognized. This does not happen on the Chilean front very often. Oh, and the 250,000 + budget for the film has already been recouped by the filmmaker through multi-country sales. Bravo Sebastian Silva for a very strong film.