Sometimes it takes a foreign-language movie to remind me of the bad viewing habits that Hollywood movies encourage. Take the new Chilean film "The Maid," for example, a big prizewinner last year at Sundance. It's about Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), a surly but beloved 41-year-old domestic who has worked with the same upper-middle-class family for more than 20 years. Raquel has lately been warring with the family's teenage daughter Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), and in one sequence the girl's mother, Pilar (Claudia Celedón), sneaks a peek at Raquel's photo album. Camila's face is scratched out of every family photo in which she appears.
At this point I was, of course, expecting "The Maid" to turn into "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." Psycho nannies are not, of course, exclusive to Hollywood. (French movies, for example, have had their share.) But when this scary frisson turned out to be no more than a blip on the otherwise frightless radar, I felt a bit ashamed of my Hollywood-honed instincts. I felt even worse because, on some level, I think the film might have been more interesting if it had gone the gory route.
As it is, "The Maid" is a study of a character who rarely emerges from the opaque end of the spectrum. When we first see Raquel, she looks miserable even as the family is exhorting her to come into the dining room for her birthday celebration. She suffers from dizzy spells of some unspecified sort. Her passive-aggressive skirmishes with Camila are not balanced out by her favoritism, laced with suppressed smiles, for the teenage Lucas (Agustín Silva). Raquel is not a barrel of laughs.
When the well-meaning Pilar, in order to relieve Raquel's burden, hires extra help, Raquel does her best to send the maids packing. She locks them out of the house and treats them like ingrates.
Thankfully, these sequences have a comic charge, especially when Sonia, the battle-ax on loan from Pilar's mother, stomps onto the scene. It is not until Sonia's sweet-souled replacement, Lucy (Mariana Loyola) arrives that the film hits its stride. It is then that we realize what was eating away at Raquel.
Or do we? The co-writer/director Sebastián Silva is careful not to turn "The Maid" into an upstairs-downstairs thing. Raquel may be working-class but that's not her beef. What she really pines for is companionship, love. When Lucy takes Raquel to meet Lucy's boisterous extended family over Christmas, the pang of what is missing in her life hits her hard.
There's a sentimentalism at work here that doesn't jibe with what came before. Raquel has been portrayed as bitter and near-insanely territorial. Her fainting spells and hostile aura point to something a bit more embroiled than a broken heart. When I wrote earlier that I wanted the film to go gory, I wasn't altogether indulging my bad habits. Silva is a bit of a tease. He and Saavedra play up Raquel as beady-eyed and slightly menacing and then they switch gears on us. They turn her into a benighted, misunderstood saint.
Saavedra's performance has been much praised, but it might have been better if she had not seemed so closed-off from the get-go. Except for a few stray moments with Lucas, she reveals few glimmers of care or forbearance with the family that supposedly loves her. When her goodness finally arrives, it seems pat instead of transformational. And by keying the film so fastidiously to Raquel's rebirth, Silva skimps on the class aspects of her story. I'm grateful that "The Maid" isn't "Upstairs, Downstairs," but not even a little bit? Pilar's mother, in a brief scene, has a haughty upper-crust air, but that's about it. Silva is so fixated on hearts and flowers that he overlooks the mops and dishrags.