Never having lived in a household with servants, I can’t offer much personal insight into The Maid, which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October and opens for a commercial run at the Music Box this week. But I’ve seen enough movies about the servant class to know that this small, involving Chilean drama is something relatively new. In most dramas about servants and their masters the characters struggle to bridge the gulf between them, be it racial (Driving Miss Daisy, the TV series I’ll Fly Away) or economic (The Remains of the Day, Gosford Park, the British series Upstairs, Downstairs). By contrast, the middle-class family in The Maid likes to pretend there is no gulf—that Raquel, their live-in maid of more than 20 years, is one of them. But they maintain this fiction less for her comfort than for their own, and it turns out to be crueler than any rigid social divide.
The movie’s opening sequence nicely frames the awkward relationship between Raquel (played with stone-faced impassivity by Catalina Saavedra) and the family she serves. Sitting in the kitchen alone, eating dinner in her uniform, she overhears the family out in the dining room as they whisper conspiratorially, preparing to present her with a birthday cake and gift. The mother, Pilar (Claudia Celedon), summons her with the dinner bell, but Raquel doesn’t budge, and no amount of calling will bring her into the dining room. The father, Mundo (Alejandro Goic), and the eldest child, Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro), exchange annoyed glances. Finally the second child, Lucas (Agustin Silva), drags the embarrassed maid into the room to be serenaded with a perfunctory “Happy Birthday.” The little observance is predicated on the idea that she’s an equal—yet no one else in the house is expected to come running at the sound of a bell.
In writing and directing the film, Sebastian Silva drew heavily on his own experience growing up with live-in domestics and even shot the film in his parents’ house in Santiago. Interviewed for Filmmaker magazine, he spoke about the complex dynamic between himself, his parents, and the maids who lived with them: “I started feeling awkward having someone at home 24/7 and feeling that her authority was less than my parents’. Also, they were more illiterate than everybody else in the house, and we were much younger than them and already knew stuff that they didn’t know, so you would feel a little superior, in a way. All those factors together either makes you act like a fucking asshole towards them, feel superior, ignore them, or feel a little sympathy. But it wasn’t just sympathy, it was guilt, and I didn’t like that, because I wasn’t responsible.”
Most of these mixed feelings he’s invested in Camila, a college student who’s grown increasingly resentful of Raquel’s authority. “I don’t know what I’d do without these kids,” Raquel declares at the birthday gathering, prompting a dubious reaction from Camila. Later that evening the two get into a spat when Camila brings a friend home to study, the young women start foraging in the kitchen, and Raquel shoos them out. Their feud continues the next morning when Raquel, ignoring Camila’s request to let her and her friend sleep late, starts vacuuming the hallway outside Camila’s bedroom. “She’s always hated me,” Camila tells Pilar, a genial woman who habitually takes Raquel’s side. Pilar dismisses this idea, but later in the movie she slips into Raquel’s room, sneaks a look at her private photo album, and is stunned to see Camila’s face scraped off two old prints.
In a lesser movie this scene might have functioned as part of a stale suspense plot—the maid is out to kill us!—but here it serves mainly to reveal how the family’s well-meaning solicitude toward Raquel has become a trap. At 41, she has no husband or children of her own, and a birthday phone call from her mother is short and uncomfortable. When she has the day off she wanders aimlessly past shop windows, barely recognizable in her casual clothes and untied hair; without her maid’s uniform she seems bereft of purpose. Raquel has been part of the household longer than any of the four children, long enough for Camila to have grown into an adult who expects from Raquel the same deference paid to her mother. One can only imagine how Raquel feels toward Camila, no longer a needy child but a pretty, well-educated young woman with her life ahead of her.
The Maid may turn mostly on issues of housework, but it never feels trivial, because Silva is so skillful in exposing the alliances and levers of power inside the household. Pilar wants to hire another maid to assist Raquel, but Raquel perceives this as a threat and has already driven off one candidate by accusing her of theft. Her best ally is Lucas, the second child, but she loses him after complaining to Pilar about his semen-soiled pajamas and bedsheets. Raquel and Camila clash again over snacks, an encounter that ends with Camila blurting, “You’re just the maid here!” Knowing she has an ally in her father, Camila complains to Mundo, who speaks to Pilar, who uses the incident as an excuse to hire a second domestic, a young Peruvian woman named Mercedes. (This is where the story starts to get interesting, so one of us might want to stop here, and it’s not gonna be me.)
At this point the battle lines are drawn, and Raquel does everything she can to protect her turf from the pleasant young woman. When Mercedes leaves the house to accept a delivery at the front gate, Raquel locks her out and turns on the vacuum cleaner to drown out the sound of her knocking and calling. When Mercedes temporarily outflanks Raquel by offering to look after Camila’s new kitten, Raquel surreptitiously tosses the cat over the garden wall. Mercedes finally quits, but this turns out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Raquel, because the next new hire is Sonia, a blunt old woman with little patience for her or the family. “Why do you make such an effort for these ingrates?” Sonia asks Raquel. “Just do your job and you’ll be happier. . . . Before you know it, they’ve grown, they’re gone, and they don’t even remember your face.” Raquel locks her out of the house too, and the incident ends in a catfight.
The third and last recruit, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), turns out to be the biggest surprise, because she and Raquel improbably hit it off. Their relationship begins with the same power struggle, but when Raquel suddenly bursts into tears, Lucy responds not with hostility but with compassion—and a devastating insight. “Why are you like this?” she cries, embracing Raquel. “What did they do to you?” What they’ve done, acting out of guilt or perhaps a misguided egalitarian impulse, is to turn Raquel into a second-class human, denied both the security of a genuine family and the respect accorded to a good employee. As Raquel begins to dimly appreciate, having a place to live isn’t the same as having a life.