28 November 2009 | Michael Fargo
Sebastián Silva concocts a film that would have tickled Freud
and Karl Marx too. Without much of a heavy hand, the perils of the class system create an unusual tension for modern American audiences. We see the "suffering" of a domestic worker, Raquel. But with the current controversy of Latin American domestic workers in the U.S. as well as North American movies audiences programmed to unhappy oddballs pulling out the automatic weapons to exact revenge expectations the film sets-up are not ever realized. This is a character study of a woman, played with convincing and unnerving power by Catalina Saavedra, who has no emotional life outside the family she serves. They don't abuse her, but they have no understanding of her deep attachment to them, and we enter the story as things begin to fray.
Raquel is moody and has resorted to passive-aggressive behavior in dealing with the family. It's her birthday and she won't come into the party prepared for her because, she says, she's embarrassed. In fact, she's in control of everyone. It's a natural outcome of long-time maladjusted servitude where domestics are privy to the most intimate knowledge of family life, often knowing "secrets" about one family member that others don't know. But Raquel is near breaking because no one has ever considered her own emotional needs and unconsciously, she senses, "Life is short." Sensing the need for some kind of change, the mother decides to employ a second domestic to "help" Raquel, and the stage is set for high drama. Raquel takes offense that she's considered inadequate, but she too hasn't a clue as to what's ailing her. It takes several assistants before someone arrives and recognizes the needs that Raquel has been not only been deprived of, but also she's deprived herself. This second maid, Lucy, played with terrific abandon by Mariana Loyola is the key to the film. Lucy is everything the rest of characters aren't. She's fulfilled and happy. She knows herself and if something's lacking, she calls it out.
What's surprising is the filmmaker trusts the characters and doesn't pander to the audience's need for farce or melodrama. A scene where a frustrated second maid is locked out of the house by Raquel and winds up climbing a trellis to reenter seems perfectly natural. And while the emotional "breakthoughs" that Raquel will or won't make are modest, and there's no overt revolution by the domestics here, the change in Raquel from the beginning of the film to the final scene is substantial and beautifully played by Saavedra. Whether American audiences can stick with the modest goals that Sebastián Silva sets up is questionable, but the charm he finds in such a bleak situation is rare and always enjoyable.