w

Birth and rebirth
 

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

the maid

Catalina Saavedra plays a long suffering servant in the
gently uplifting The Maid.


The Maid (La Nana), which just opened, is one of those films you could watch as straight drama or as a film that could have you in stitches. The tone is ambiguous, adding a certain mysterious quality to the film, although it takes some time to see where it is going.

Virtually the entire film is spent with Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), a surly, live-in housemaid who tends a large, upper-middle class family in Santiago, Chile. We meet Raquel in the opening frame, having a birthday meal, alone, at the kitchen table. While her blank, unsmiling expression reflects a physical and emotional exhaustion from a workload that involves everything from waking and putting the children to bed, to washing and cleaning, to serving at the dinner table, the dullness behind her eyes comes from more than just being overworked.

This becomes apparent when Mrs. Valdez, out of concern for Raquel’s health, tries to hire a second maid to help her long-suffering servant; Raquel suffers from dizzy spells and painful headaches and yet has an almost sociopathic resistance to help. Ignoring her maid’s stubborn ways, Mrs. Valdez proceeds to hire the second maid. The subsequent tension within the house creates some strange and amusing interactions involving, among other things, a kitten, locked doors and a model of a tall ship (the elusive Mr. Valdez is a serious model hobbyist).

Considering the amount of time we spend with Raquel, we don’t learn a great deal about her, at least not initially. It’s as if 20 years of washing and scrubbing have erased her history. Even when out shopping on her day off, she moves in a kind of automatic way. She lives for her work.

Small things take on major significance. Raquel is inflexible, territorial and incommunicative. In short, a royal pain in the butt. Yet she’s clearly dedicated to the Valdezes and they respond by treating her like family. Even Raquel’s strange antagonistic relationship with the teenage daughter seems to stem from a kind of twisted familial rivalry.

Sebastián Silva dedicated his character study to two maids employed by his family while he was growing up. Through handheld camerawork and flawlessly naturalistic performances from his cast, he creates a fly-on-the-wall intimacy with, and an obvious fondness for, his subject. He captures the humour in Raquel’s obsessive behaviour, while leaving enough scope for Raquel to open up later and quietly transform after an unexpected turn of events.

The tone is interesting. There’s a sense of everything being quite ordinary yet slightly off-kilter and one has the feeling that the action could detour at any moment into something more extreme. Instead, Silva merely teases with elements of genre filmmaking. What remains is a restrained, humorous, and, latterly, a gently uplifting piece about a working class woman’s renaissance.

The theme of birth and motherhood is tackled in Rodrigo Garcia’s drama Mother and Child (4th), a drama that weaves together the experiences of three separate women. The film has been heaped with praise for navigating the clichés that come with such territory and for wringing great performances from Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington: Bening as a middle-aged woman who still obsesses about the baby daughter she gave up for adoption 37 years ago; Watts as the abandoned daughter, now a hardened, ambitious lawyer; and Kerry Washington as Lucy, a woman desperate to have a child, even if it means adopting.

Finally, Oliver Stone proves once again to be a lightning rod for controversy with his latest project South of the Border. Out on the 25th, the documentary began as a profile of Venezuelan president and champion of popular socialism Hugo Chavez and ended up as a glowing portrait of South American leadership and a critique of US mainstream media.

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike Alone. www.youneverbikealone.com. He writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.