The Mercurial Magnifying Glass of 'The Maid/La Nana'
Mercurial maids are more often the figment of a voyeuristic male imagination than the product of serious art—with perhaps the exception of Vermeer, and, more recently, Director Sebastian Silva. Silva’s surprising sophomore film, La Nana (The Maid, 2009), takes on what initially appears to be a conventional narrative structure—almost like an Arthurian legend with three challenges, a voyage away from home, and a return with more wisdom—and transforms it into an intimate study of familial love and the territorial selfishness that comes with the vocation of being a domestic servant. Set in a wealthy suburb Santiago, Chile, the film almost entirely takes place in a lush mansion that envelops its residents in a sterile white marble aesthetic made all the more aseptic by an anxious overuse of bleach.
Our heroine, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), is a maid with a poker face strong enough that she almost warrants being called stoic, were it not for her outbursts. She gets along pretty well with everyone in the home she serves, such as the mother of the family, Pilar (Claudia Celedòn), and her eccentric husband, Edmundo (Alejandro Goic), who personifies the kind of person who builds replica colonial-era warships and plays more golf than the current leader of the free world. Raquel has a special relationship with the boys of the house, two of whom are in early grammar school, taken after almost equally by Raquel and her partner in crime, the oldest brother, Lucas (Agustìn Silva). Yet all of that stops with the only daughter, Camila (Andrea Garcìa Huidobro). Potentially a threat to Raquel's intermediary status as a woman in the house, Camila is tormented in small doses by her maid, whether in the hiding of snacks or in an inconvenient early morning vacuum cleaning outside of her room.
Although Raquel is beloved by the rest of the family and has been securely serving them for over 20 years, she nonetheless feels constantly threatened in her job security when the benevolent Pilar brings in a series of secondary maids, ostensibly to help a weary Raquel around the immense Chilean mansion. Raquel takes her work seriously, diligently over cleaning every surface in the house with an excess of bleach that ultimately gives her fainting spells, reinforcing the need for additional help. Yet Raquel is also territorial about the house, not because its cleanliness is the product of her work, but because she is isolated from her own family and genuinely feels a part of the one that she serves. Each new maid that enters the house, of which there are three, is quickly tricked into being locked out of the house by Raquel, who unflinchingly turns on an idle vacuum to ignore their cries for help.
The new maids are also met with an escalating form of domestic guerilla warfare by Raquel, who throws a new maid's cat over the back yard wall and provokes an elderstates-maiden into a costly brawl. Yet each level of provocation by Raquel reveals a deeper psychological anguish, cultivated by brief phone calls to an un-shown mother and a scrapbook containing photos dating back to the birth of each child in the house. It isn't until a voyage out of town to the third maid's family home for Christmas that Raquel begins to let her guard down regarding her place in the family.
Shot in a 2009 version of digital high definition that looks grainy and pseudo-documentary by today's standards, Silva composes a domestic realist portrait of family life that bolsters refreshing performances from several characters. Lucas is played in full mid-adolescence by Agustìn Silva, who has to navigate between a semi-parental role for his younger brothers and the onset of hormones, where he gives a stellar stealth masturbation scene that captures a quintessential hallmark of any young man living at home or with a roommate. Pilar embodies all of the motherly qualities Raquel either lacks or is forbidden from, performed in ignorant pathos by Celedòn, who is ultimately the most important ally of Raquel's as her mental and physical health jointly deteriorate. The final maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), proves to be the ultimate scene stealer in her third act performance. Her energy and empathy illuminate positive qualities that have laid dormant within Raquel, and her appearance shifts what had been a predictable plotline up until her debut.
Ultimately, La Nana examines the grey area in between two categories that are considered to be quite starkly contrasted in Western society: work and family. Although few glances are given into Raquel's psyche and her true intentions remain a mystery almost throughout the film, Silva's intimate portrait of her and Saavedra's close-to-the-vest performance allow for audience engagement to the point of pure projection upon the persona of the heroine. The distinction between work and family is completely broken down by Raquel, where her work is her family and vice versa. The nature of the tasks involved in being a maid themselves do not matter for her as much as the fact that she and the family are codependent upon each other, and that the kids—except for that brat Camila—love her and were raised by her on a de facto level.
Rather than make an easy commentary on the disparities between the wealthy and the poor, Silva prefers a magnifying glass to a mirror in his examination of how familial relationships work. Under that magnifying glass, the true beauty of Raquel's character is shown, like the geometry of a snowflake or a misunderstood microorganism, which, in Raquel's case, might be an amoeba for how it envelops all whom surround it with love.