The Maid -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

TUNIS, Tunisia -- As a sympathetic and unflinching portrayal of one woman's struggle to escape emotional self-destruction, director Sebastian Silva's "The Maid" precisely plumbs the depths of human frailty to compassionately reveal the interior life of a troubled character while avoiding the pitfalls of distracting sentimentality. This is strikingly talented cinema from a notable international filmmaker.

With the 2009 Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema grand jury prize among its laurels, Silva's film could attract respectable patronage among art house adherents when it opens in New York October 16 and exhibits excellent prospects for awards season consideration.

As the live-in maid for an upscale Chilean family, 41-year-old Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has responsibility for all the Valdez home's domestic affairs. It's a position she's held for 23 years, making her almost as much of the family as Pilar (Claudia Celedon), her husband Mundo (Alejandro Goic) and their four kids. Dressed in her black uniform from early morning to late evening, Raquel picks up after them and caters to their whims with only one day off a week.

Despite her integral role in the family, unattractive and stubborn Raquel remains emotionally distant and often irritable, a situation complicated by her estrangement from her own mother and progressively frequent dizzy spells that she hides from her employers. Her prickly attitude and prodigious workload convince Pilar that bringing on additional help will lessen the housemaid's burden and improve her disposition.

Raquel however, feels threatened when her boss hires the younger Mercedes to assist with the household chores. Asserting "it's my family," Raquel launches an insidious domestic warfare campaign against the new arrival, so skillfully undermining Mercedes that she quits in frustration.

The older and more experienced Sonia replaces Mercedes, raising the stakes further for Raquel, whose ongoing silent stratagems result in violent confrontation, forcing Sonia to resign.

When Raquel passes out in front of her employer shortly afterward, Pilar firmly introduces Lucy (Mariana Loyola), a slightly younger and far more even-tempered domestic, into the household. As Raquel recovers, Lucy's support and kindness begin rounding off the older maid's rough edges, but further household crises put Raquel's improved outlook and ongoing tenure in doubt.

Saavedra's brave, unrestrained performance as the strange and self-destructively territorial Raquel (which earned her a well-deserved best actress special jury prize at Sundance) is both understated and forceful, combining incrementally revealing facial expressions and increasingly hostile body language to reveal an intensely lonely and conflicted character.

In only his second feature, Silva, along with co-writer Pedro Peirano, evinces a penetrating perception of character motivations and social situations, as well as a darkly amusing sense of humor. By drawing impressively nuanced performances from the actors, he continually maintains Raquel's opportunity for redemption just out of reach.

Exploiting the tight confines of the Valdez home as a metaphor for Raquel's emotional entrapment, Silva shoots almost entirely in this domestic sphere, expertly supported by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong's handheld camera work and natural lighting. A greater emphasis on the film's score might have added additional resonance, but overall "The Maid" gratifyingly succeeds on its own substantial merits.

Venue: Tunis International Film Festival

Production companies: Forastero and Diroriro in association with Tiburon Filmes and Punto Guion Punto Producciones
Cast: Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedon, Alejandro Goic, Andrea Garcia-Huidobro, Mariana Loyola, Agustin Silva
Director: Sebastian Silva
Screenwriters: Sebastian Silva, Pedro Peirano
Producers: Gregorio Gonzalez, Issa Guerra, Edgar San Juan, Sebastian Sanchez Amunategui
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Pablo Gonzalez
Editor: Danielle Fillios
No rating, 94 minutes