DVD Review: The Maid Is a Lot of Good Things, But Funny Ain't One of 'Em

It's being put about by some that The Maid (La Nana), winner of last year's Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema for Best Film, is a comedy. It even says so right on the brand-new DVD box from Oscilloscope Laboratories: "humorous"; "darkly comedic."

Now, this astonishing 2009 Chilean movie is many things: a pointed examination of domestic politics, a startling portrait of a life given over to others, a beautifully observed film about the smallest of everyday things that somehow feels huge and noble and universal. But "funny" it ain't. Though I suppose "darkly comedic" will sell more DVDs than "brutally sad."

Cuz that's what I see here: brutal sadness, in the tight boundaries and minor limits of the life of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra, who also won the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Best Actress), live-in maid to a well-off Santiago family. And yet I cannot urge you strongly enough to see this movie -- see it now. Because it's not just brutally sad; it's also surprisingly hopeful, and wonderfully unpredictable, and simply lovely in how writer and director Sebastián Silva juggles his characters within the restricted confines of the Valdes home (almost the whole movie takes place there), in how he crafts such a richly emotional story in all the things that go unsaid between the Valdeses and Raquel, and in how he so skillfully maneuvers through ever-changing perspectives on Raquel and the lengths to which she will go to retain what little power she has in her life. She is the villain of the piece, and the heroine, and one of the most unforgettable characters I've ever seen on film.

Pilar (Claudia Celedón) may be mom to her gaggle of cheerfully squabbling kids, but Raquel is in charge of the household; dad Mundo (Alejandro Goic) is mostly absent. Raquel's strange dominance is a fact that no one seems to acknowledge, however -- they might not even recognize it. The eldest child, 20ish Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), is convinced Raquel hates her even though the maid has helped raised her since birth; it's clear, at least, that Raquel's favorite is charming teen Lucas (Agustín Silva). It's also clear that the burden of 20-plus years of nothing in Raquel's life but this family and this house is taking a severe toll. She appears to have no friends, no interests, nothing outside of the Valdes family, who exist only in an uncomfortable gray area that the employer/employee divide renders unnavigable.

What Raquel does have now are raging migraines that are getting worse. The house and the kids are just too much work for her, but she's also loathe to cede any of the power she has. So when Pilar brings in another, much younger maid to help Raquel...

Well, I won't tell you what happens. You'll see some of Raquel's household warfare coming, some of it will mystify you, and some of it will be totally unexpected. None of it is funny, to my eye -- just horrifying and heartbreaking. And absolutely haunting, in the very best way. This is the rare film that strives to introduce you to a character and succeeds in a way that you won't see coming.

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MaryAnn Johanson does all her own cleaning up at FlickFilosopher.com. (email me)