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The Maid

Serving Time

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

There is a smart cliché in today’s movies: to get a tracking shot started, the hero will tell some assistant, “Walk with me.” He will give up some plot as he does, looking very proactive in the process. We do almost nothing but walk with Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), the antiheroine of The Maid, as she takes care of a large family in Santiago, Chile.

The movie is a procedural, accumulating its evidence. We follow Raquel, a hard-faced servant pushing 40, as she watches the family she works for.

The nominal paterfamilias is Raymond, called Mundo (Alejandro Goic), a pleasant nonentity most obsessed with the golf course and his three-masted-ship models. The mom, Pilar (Claudia Celedón), is too distracted by her own career to pay attention to Raquel’s increasingly ominous moods, and she underestimates the cold war between Raquel and Pilar’s daughter, whom the maid loathes.

The thrilling yet nuanced performance by Catalina Saavedra — a highlight of the year in film — makes The Maid everything that the powers that be claim that Precious is. Precious is bound to be more popular, though, because it ignores the principal expressed by the poet Auden: “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”

Director Sebastián Silva is a member of the maid-hiring class—the film is dedicated to two of his former servants, whose photographs appear on the end titles. Yet he doesn’t patronize his subject, whom he tracks with such admirable intimacy. The Maid trusts us to discover the cause of Raquel’s anxieties. She’s weary, solitary and headache prone. At the same time, she bullies the servants brought in to help her. She misunderstands the favors done for her, but her suspiciousness is completely understandable.

We discover that she is sweet on Lucas (Augustín Silva), the young master of the house, the only one she calls by an affectionate nickname. It is with no forethought that Raquel
turns against Lucas — finking on him for masturbating — when Raquel thinks Lucas is infatuated with a younger rival, a Peruvian country girl who is retained to clean up the kitchen.

About halfway through, you’re certain that The Maid can only end in violence. I’m fond of the servants-gone-psycho genre from either a political or a grindhouse angle, but The Maid delivers an unexpected development: the newest assistant maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), arrives; she’s a bohemian type, who likes jogging and sunbathing.

Lucy is more perceptive than she looks, though; she takes Raquel to the country for a flyblown, homey Christmas with lots of drinking. And Raquel gets a moment to show that she remembers how to flirt. These moments of unexpected happiness are no more strained than the quality of mercy itself.

So much comedy is based on the idea of a servant being about three-quarters of a real human being; this movie gives you the full weight of manual labor and the sense of relief in genuine acts of kindness. Lucy says something describing the farm she grew up on. It’s almost true of the world: “If it weren’t for the hard labor, it would be paradise.”