Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva's newest "house" film, The Maid, swaps customary debates of bedroom politics for the upstairs/downstairs relations of domestic labor. In an upper-middle class subdivision of Santiago, 40-year-old maid Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), perpetually stony and indignant, operates a rigorous dawn-to-dusk routine for the Valdez family, her employers for 20 years. Although Raquel rarely behaves as an intimate of her longtime hosts, she remains convinced that love, not labor, bonds them. Whether the family shares Raquel's feelings of devotion is highly dubious: father Mundo (Alejandro Goic) often ignores or avoids her except when giving orders; daughter Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro) actively despises her and lobbies for her dismissal from mother Pilar (Claudia Celedón), whose sense of noblesse oblige is a patronage bound by a mix of affection and pity.
When a rotating cast of interlopers is hired to assist Raquel, the paranoid domestic stoops to machinations most vile to scare them away. She dispatches young Peruvian maid Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) by cruelly disposing of her adopted kitten and forces the gruff and hot-tempered Sonia (Anita Reeves) into a violent confrontation before she resigns in disgust. But third comer Lucy (Mariana Loyola) is an altogether different challenge. Her unpredictable influence over Raquel sets the narrative of The Maid on a very different psychological trajectory from moody chamber piece to eccentric slice-of-life.
If Silva's film taunts the viewer with the possibility of a horrific climax, either as a result of its titular counterpart Jean Genet's 1946 stage drama The Maids, about two servants' homicidal revenge or from the unnerving "mugshot" of Saavedra on the movie poster, it is neither self-destructive nor Grand Guignol. Rather, it it is much more prosaic in execution. Filmed almost exclusively in the narrow hallways, bathrooms, and parlors of a Santiago McMansion, Sergio Armstrong's fidgety hand-held camera captures Raquel's claustrophobic routine. It also accentuates her Sisyphean conundrum: although she completely rules the inner workings of the house, she remains forever a guest. The more she makes the house into a home, the more it becomes a prison she refuses to escape from.
But while Saavedra's title role is an interesting case study in the political and emotional complexities of the Latin American domestic, her character's motivations often evoke as much confusion as wonder. In the absence of some much needed exposition, The Maid's heavy-handed silences, plaintive gazes, and inexplicable eruptions of laughter feel oddly sterile, and a contrived preciousness begins to creep over the film like an effluvial whitewash. Its abundance makes you aware there is a shabbiness hiding beneath the dramatic facade the various stains and holes of an unrealized third act.
THE MAID opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.