The Maid (La Nana) (review)

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Domestic Combat

It’s being put about by some that The Maid (La Nana), winner of last year’s Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema for Best Film, is a comedy. It even says so right on the brand-new DVD box from Oscilloscope Laboratories: “humorous”; “darkly comedic.”

Now, this astonishing 2009 Chilean movie is many things: a pointed examination of domestic politics; a startling portrait of a life given over to others; a beautifully observed film about the smallest of everyday things that somehow feels huge and noble and universal. But “funny” it ain’t. Though I suppose “darkly comedic” will sell more DVDs than “brutally sad.”

Cuz that’s what I see here: brutal sadness, in the tight boundaries and minor limits of the life of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra, who also won the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Best Actress), live-in maid to a well-off Santiago family. And yet I cannot urge you strongly enough to see this movie — see it now. Because it’s not just brutally sad: it’s also surprisingly hopeful, and wonderfully unpredictable, and simply lovely in how writer and director Sebastián Silva juggles his characters within the restricted confines of the Valdes home (almost the whole movie takes place there), in how he crafts such a richly emotional story in all the things that go unsaid between the Valdeses and Raquel, and in how he so skillfully maneuvers through ever-changing perspectives on Raquel and the lengths to which she will go to retain what little power she has in her life. She is the villain of the piece, and the heroine, and one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever seen on film.

Pilar (Claudia Celedón) may be mom to her gaggle of cheerfully squabbling kids, but Raquel is in charge of the household; dad Mundo (Alejandro Goic) is mostly absent. Raquel’s strange dominance is a fact that no one seems to acknowledge, however — they might not even recognize it. The eldest child, 20ish Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), is convinced Raquel hates her even though the maid has helped raised her since birth; it’s clear, at least, that Raquel’s favorite is charming teen Lucas (Agustín Silva). It’s also clear that the burden of 20-plus years of nothing in Raquel’s life but this family and this house is taking a severe toll. She appears to have no friends, no interests, nothing outside of the Valdes family, who exist only in an uncomfortable gray area that the employer/employee divide renders unnavigable.

What Raquel does have now are raging migraines that are getting worse: the house and the kids are just too much work for her, but she’s also loathe to cede any of the power she has. So when Pilar brings in another, much younger maid to help Raquel…

Well, I won’t tell you what happens. You’ll see some of Raquel’s household warfare coming; some of it will mystify you; and some of it will be totally unexpected. None of it is funny, to my eye: just horrifying and heartbreaking. And absolutely haunting, in the very best way. This is the rare film that strives to introduce you to a character and succeeds in a way that you won’t see coming.

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Thu, Jun 17, 2010 4:07pm

Thanks for the review- it sounds fascinating. I have added it to my NetFlix queue.

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Thu, Jun 17, 2010 4:39pm

I’m not familiar with this film, but this problem – the marketing of films as more ‘feelgood’ than they actually are – seems to be getting worse all the time. I saw a bizarre and incredibly memorable Greek film called Dogtooth recently about a massively dysfunctional rich family – it was disturbing, but the tone was weirdly relaxed and nonjudgmental, which made it feel even queasier and more ambiguous.

What it wasn’t was a comedy – and yet every review, every poster and every piece of promotional literature I read sold it as such. I suppose it’s easier to describe it as a black comedy rather than try and pin down the odd, absurd, disquieting tone it actually had, but could this kind “lightening up” of marketing materials be another example of that phenomenon of the narrowing of movie-geek taste Devin Faraci identified? Even a niche market has to be promised a mainstream experience nowadays, it seems.