Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has lived for the past 23 years with a vibrant, wealthy Valdez family in Santiago, Chile. But as the family maid, her existence is complicated. She sees the Valdez family at their most intimate moments: the husband's naked body as he rushes to the shower, the teenage boy's stained sheets.
In some ways, the family revolves around Raquel: she wakes them each morning, cooks their meals, dresses them for school, and washes their soiled clothing. And yet despite that proximity, she is an outsider. Raquel eats her dinner alone in the kitchen, her scowling, pale face staring down at her plate. And she suffers from a raft of maladies — fainting spells, headaches — that undoubtedly reflect her deep unhappiness with her situation.
There is affection between the maid and family, but also rivalry and tension. Raquel is estranged from her own family, and in many ways her employers are a substitute. But they are an ersatz family, and one with the ability to fire Raquel if they are ever displeased.
When the well-intentioned mistress of the house Pilar (Claudia Celedon) suggests that Raquel's health problems might improve if she had some help around the house, the maid bristles. She may be miserable, but it is a known misery. And there is also the possibility that with a stranger in the house, the Valdezes may realize they don't need her after all.
Raquel subjects the other temporary housekeepers to a litany of tortures. Her favorite trick is locking them outside the house. But Raquel's anxiety and unhappiness appear to be taking their toll. Raquel collapses and is rushed to the hospital. While she convalesces, a cheerful young woman from a local village arrives to help the family out. Raquel is incensed by the interloper, but Lucy (Mariana Loyola) is not like the other maids. She looks past Raquel's strange behavior to see pain and heartbreak in Raquel's circumstance.
Though she has just turned 41, Raquel is essentially a child who pouts and lashes out when she's angry and is unable to express her emotions in a direct way. The pair become friends, possibly the first one Raquel has ever had. One of the most riveting scenes in the film comes midpoint when the still recuperating Raquel rages at how Lucy has supplanted her in the house; the elder maid furiously scrubs her bathroom with caustic chemicals out of anger. Until this point Raquel has been a miserable, often unlikable character. But Lucy intuits what's happening: this is a woman who has kept her emotions locked away for decades. Lucy embraces and holds Raquel as she weeps, all of her unhappiness pouring out. In what might be her first serious venture outside the Valdez residence, Raquel accompanies Lucy back to her home village. The experience is clearly revelatory for Raquel. She encounters a happy, content, jovial family delighting in each other's company and has her first tentative taste of romance with Lucy's uncle.
Chilean director Sebastian Silva's film is a compassionate look at the bizarre economy of master and servant. Shot in his childhood home — and featuring his own younger brother as one of the Valdez children — the 30-year-old Silva undoubtedly knows of what he speaks. His film captures both the smothering intimacy and also the strange emotional limbo that exists between an employer and live-in servant. And though it's hard to miss the subtext of class that underlies The Maid, Silva's film is not some dry political tract.
The winner of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema grand jury prize, The Maid is at its core a story about human beings. Being from the world where the story unfolds, Silva humanizes both sides of the equation: employer and employed. There is clearly much affection between Raquel and the teenagers she has raised since childhood.Meanwhile Raquel's doppelganger, the busy academic mother Pilar, could have easily been an upper-class stereotype, but instead she clearly feels for Raquel's unhappiness and does her best to understand her.
Silva is less interested in showing us how Raquel's situation is gravely unequal as he is in getting us to understand Raquel the person and the strange, sad circumstance she lives in. Silva is an astute observer of human behavior and the details are keen and illuminating, such as the way the blossoming sexuality of the teenage son makes him suddenly hyper-aware of Raquel as a non-family member female in the house.
The Maid would be a memorable film in any year, but in the occasionally lackluster 2009, it is especially notable for its finely drawn, and not always pleasant, female lead. Women in Hollywood don't often get roles as meaty as the one Catalina Saavedra has here, and she doesn't squander her opportunity in Silva's thrilling tale of one woman's progression from oppression to self-awareness.