Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Film review: 'The Maid,' compelling portrait of a breakdown

Catalina Saavedra in The Maid.

By John Thomason

Severe mental illness or run-of-the-mill midlife crisis?

This is the debate posed by Sebastian Silva’s The Maid, which opens Friday in Lake Worth and Lake Park. This compelling Chilean drama, which won a jury prize at Sundance last year, explores a character of complex interiority: a dowdy, middle-aged, live-in maid for an upper-crust family of five, whose mental and physical stability begins to deteriorate after 23 years of faithful service.

We are first introduced to the titular Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) as she consumes a joyless dinner while the family has planned a small celebration for her 41st birthday in the adjoining room. Begrudgingly, she partakes in the celebration, her face perpetually downcast. It’s the first sign of the beginnings of a breakdown. Unable to complete her tasks with the efficiency she used to have, Raquel bristles at the revolving door of supplemental maids soon hired by the family to divvy up responsibilities.

She retaliates by locking them out of the house, running the vacuum incessantly to block out their cries, stealing snacks, engaging in verbal spats with eldest daughter Camila and attempting to drown the family cat. Pair her destructive behavior with the headaches and fainting spells she suffers routinely and you have the ingredients for a serious illness.

Maybe it’s loyalty factor – Raquel has been always been like one of the family – but it’s strange that her employers have an infinite patience for her countless breaches of conduct and constantly dour demeanor. Only the teenage children, Camila and Lucas, voice their objections on their parents’ deaf ears.

Then again, it’s a strange family in general. It’s unclear where the money for the two-story house, expansive pool and ping-pong table comes from: We assume husband Mundo (Alejandro Goic) works, but we only see him playing golf and toiling on his hobby, building wooden models of clipper ships. His wife Pilar (Claudia Celedon) teaches, not the most lucrative of professions.

These logic gaps and incompletions abound in The Maid, which may have something to do with the fact that the movie was cut by about 20 minutes from its original, 115-minute European running time. Still, the film is a feast of style.

Following the characters through rooms and up staircases with subjective long takes, the movie’s claustrophobic intensity recalls the existential dramas of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, La Promesse). At the same time, the sense of impending dread, escalating like dominoes in an upper-class setting, rings of Claude Chabrol’s tightly wound thrillers. But by the time the movie takes a surprising turn in its unconventional third act, both comparisons become irrelevant.

Writer-director Silva has been fascinated by the psychology of live-in maids, having grown up in environments alongside them, and the resulting film represents his internal grapple with the patronizing feelings he’s had toward them. But certainly, this sense of superiority over his subject is never evident onscreen: Raquel is a dense and fascinating character, worthy of our amazement, pity and, ultimately, love.

And after all, we may not be able to relate to her psychotic episodes, but in today’s economic climate, the panic over job security and losing out to a younger model is an all-too familiar concern – one that might just drive anybody crazy.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

THE MAID. Distributor: Elephant Eye Films; Director: Sebastian Silva; Cast: Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedon, Alejandro Goic, Andrea Garcia-Huidobro, Augustin Silva and Mariana Loyola; in Spanish with English subtitles. Opens: Friday; Venue: Lake Worth Playhouse, Mos'Art Theatre, Cinema Paradiso (Fort Lauderdale); opens Jan. 15 at Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, Regal Delray 18 and Movies of Delray

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