I. Upstairs Downstairs
The Maid (La Nana) is a claustrophobic film. Almost all of it takes place inside a fenced and gated family home where we are trapped with the servants. And though they carry their vacuums and dusters into every corner when the family is away, their true domain is the narrow kitchen and the two tiny maids’ rooms just off of it.
The jerky, handheld camera sticks close to Raquel, the title character, and the three maids who come in, one by one, to try to work with her. Raquel has been suffering from fainting spells and migraines, caused by fumes from the cleaning products she uses and exacerbated by insufficient exposure to the outdoors. The Valdés family, led by mother Pilar, wants to bring in another maid to assist Raquel and split her duties. But Raquel sees a second maid as a threat and a sign of her encroaching obsolescence, so she launches petty warfare on all contenders for the position.
For the first hour of the film, things mount toward a boiling point with no relief in sight. Raquel can’t or won’t quit. Having served the family for more than twenty years, her entire adult life, she not only needs the job but it’s all she has ever known. And Pilar can’t or won’t fire her. As she explains to her eldest daughter, Raquel is a member of the family.
II. An Embedded Film
The Maid was the second and breakthrough film of young Chilean director Sebastián Silva, who turned thirty in 2009, the year of its release. While a few of his other films draw on autobiographical elements (La Vida Me Mata and Nasty Baby, for instance), The Maid is particularly rooted in his own experience. It was based on his childhood growing up in a wealthy home in Santiago with live-in maids. And not just any home, but the exact one shown in the movie.
In this way, the film is not only autobiographical but embedded. As Silva explains in an interview:
The movie takes place in my parents’ house, where I grew up. Raquel is inspired by a maid who lived and worked at our house for over 25 years. The movie maids slept in the real maids’ rooms. We used the same photo albums, the same TV set, decoration, everything. […] My youngest brother played me in the movie. My sister did art direction. It was a family enterprise. […] The real-life character who inspired Lucy, the second maid, worked at the house while we were filming. She wore an apron and served everybody. While she worked as a maid she coached Mariana Loyola, the actress. They became really good friends.
Silva characterizes the shooting as “kind of incestuous,” while describing the film as “quite a reality check for my family.”
I’ve probably seen The Maid five times now. And while the first time I saw it I enjoyed it in ignorance of its production details, I keep returning to it because of its embeddedness. I am fascinated and provoked by the way the real bleeds into the fiction, and by the knowledge that its young director crafted the story out of real-life elements in order to, as he put it in that same interview, “exorcise his demons” about the practice of live-in maids into which he was born.
III. Shared Lifeworld
A number of film critics and theorists believe we watch documentaries differently from how we watch fiction films. Film phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack argues that “[d]ocumentary space is indexically constituted as the perceived conjunction of the viewer’s lifeworld and the visible space represented in the text, and it is activated by the viewer’s gaze at the filmmaker’s gaze, both subjectively judged as ethical action” (Carnal Thoughts, 247–48). In other words, when we watch a film that we know or deem to be real, we understand that the filmmaker and the people onscreen exist in the same world as we do; and because of this, we judge the ethics of the filmmaker’s gaze and actions vis-à-vis the people onscreen in a way we wouldn’t with a fiction film.
The Maid is not a documentary, but knowing what I know about the inspiration and making of the film, I find myself entering into a similarly fraught and ethically-charged space every time I view it. The “real Raquel” isn’t onscreen, but I know she’s out there, somewhere behind and before, but also beyond and after, Catalina Saavedra’s incredible performance.
Likewise, the character of Lucas, played by Silva’s brother Agustín as a stand-in for the director, has far more significance to me than the small size of the part would seem to merit. About thirteen years old, Lucas is the golden boy of the family, and we watch his gilded adolescence become tarnished by his growing awareness of the working and living conditions of the woman who serves him. But we know too that in a few years he will escape the family home and become a celebrated, award-winning filmmaker with the freedom and privilege to range across nation-states and languages—a destiny world’s away from what can be imagined for Raquel.
But again, I didn’t know any of this on my first viewing of The Maid, when I stumbled across it on a streaming service three or four years ago. I was probably drawn in by the laurels attached to the film: a World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category at Sundance, as well as a Special Jury Prize for Saavedra’s acting.
The Maid has more than enough to commend it as a work of fiction, but I believe I also sensed, even on that first viewing, a charge of the real in the film. Somehow I knew it was more than just a terrific character study shot in a handheld, documentary style.
I think I thought I was seeing a work of neorealism.
Since its beginnings in post-WWII Italian cinema, neorealism has been characterized by the use of nonprofessional actors, location shooting, and stories about poor and working-class people. These things are bound up together: neorealist filmmakers seek out real people, often in the very places the films will be shot, and cast them for type, with the understanding that they will bring authenticity to the roles in a way professional actors never could.
So if I perceived The Maid to be a work of neorealism, I must have sensed something authentic in the casting and performance of the film’s working-class roles, and particularly that of Raquel.
It’s true the film is a far cry from Hollywood. Saavedra is no J.Lo, and we realize very quickly that hers will not be a Cinderella story like Maid in Manhattan (2002). Raquel is thick and lumbering, with frizzy bangs, a severe ponytail, and sunken eyes. She has a funny way of running, like a stunted child who grew up chained to a chair in a darkened room and never learned to stretch her legs in an open field. Saavedra and Silva take the portrayal very far, verging often, especially in the first hour, on the grotesque.
But that hardly makes it real. My desire to read authenticity into the casting of Saavedra, or to assume that the role of Raquel is in any way more inhabited than acted, is disturbing. It brings the ethics of my own gaze, not the director’s, round for judgment.
Yet it seems I wasn’t alone in viewing the film this way. Reviewers and interviewers often mention the term “neorealism” in their discussions of The Maid. Silva, though, doesn’t seem to have been versed in the tradition when he made it. In the already-cited interview, when he is asked if the film is neorealist, he responds, “It’s realistic, and it was made now, so neorealism makes sense.” The conversation soon veers elsewhere.
Regardless of whether Silva saw the film as “neorealist,” and even regardless of whether the film merits the label, neorealism remains the most established cinematic tradition for the blurring of the real and the fictive in stories about working-class people. So it may, in the end, be worth holding on to as an analytical tool for The Maid.
V. Seeming versus Being
There was a grace and dignity to neorealist casting in the early Italian films, such as Vittorio De Sica’s use of Lamberto Maggiorani as the lead in Bicycle Thieves (1948). Andre Bazin wrote passionately about De Sica’s “tenderness,” “love,” and “inexhaustible affection for his characters” (“De Sica: Metteur en Scène”).
In later neorealist films, though, the love can be hard to find. In Carlos Reygada’s Battle in Heaven (2005), the two nonprofessional leads move through the film like corpulent zombies, appearing naked and having sex in front the camera in what feel like gratuitously long takes. The point of Reygada’s casting and the insistence on nudity seems to be to show us how class oppression and social restriction materialize on and as poor people’s bodies. (A similar point is made in Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, also from 2005.)
In Silva’s film, we see three of the four maids naked from the waist up while showering. While this nudity does not feel as gratuitous or excessive as in Reygada’s film, I suspect the purpose behind the shots was similar. Raquel and Sonia, the two characters who have been working as servants all their lives, have stouter bodies than the other two maids and especially the thin parents and reed-like children of the Valdés family.
Professional actors appear in neorealist films too, but they usually play the roles of grasping and corrupt landlords, bosses, and aristocrats, as with Lina Gennari’s performance in De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952). As a result, the upper-class characters seem to possess a deep interiority that the poorer characters, played by nonprofessional actors, often lack, and this interiority is corrupt: it is where the rich devise their strategies for exploiting the poor and their self-justifications for maintaining the system of oppression. Poor and working-class people, by contrast, are simple and true. They are devoid of inconstancy and any surface-depth discrepancy.
I’m painting the neorealist tradition in overly broad strokes, but it should be clear that a main current of it, at least, is caught up in a classed sense of the Cartesian mind-body split. The rich have mind while the poor have body. Air versus earth. Thinking versus feeling. Seeming versus being.
For this reason, as a viewer I’m suspicious of neorealist films even though I often love them. I’m wary of any film that evacuates psychological depth from poor and working-class characters, even as I’m attracted to storylines about oppressed ingenues who triumph over their duplicitous and conniving overlords. I try to keep an aesthetic distance from these films, even as the ethical conundrum of their use of real-life poor people keeps pulling me in.
VI. Shadow Neorealism
I was wrong in that first viewing: Silva’s film is not a work of neorealism. All of the roles are played by professional actors with only a few exceptions—including Mercedes, the first contender for the new maid position, and, perhaps ironically, Lucas. But as I learned how The Maid was made, and in particular the details of its embedded shoot, I found myself responding to the formal, ideological, and ethical issues posed by the film as if it were a work of neorealism.
Can a film, then, be a work of shadow neorealism? Can its production stay so close to the actual site and actual people involved in the real-life events upon which its fiction is based, that all of the issues of neorealist cinema still apply?
VII. A Revolutionary Humanism?
Neorealist films are often as conflicted ideologically, in the sense of the message of their onscreen content, as they are ethically, in the sense of the messy lifeworld extending beyond their frames—and no doubt the two are bound up with each other. Bazin also praised Italian neorealism for its “revolutionary humanism” (“An Aesthetic of Reality”). But how revolutionary can that humanism be if the films present poverty and injustice as archetypal and thus enduring, even eternal?
The message of Silva’s film is similarly conflicted. Another reason I keep diving into his interviews about the making of The Maid is because I want to understand the central paradox of the film’s onscreen content: how it can present so powerful a critique of the class system, yet ultimately seem resigned to the continuation of that system.
Across its first hour, the film seems to march toward the trope of the murderous maid who plots cruel and parasitic vengeance on her bourgeois masters, à la Jean Genet’s 1947 play Les Bonnes and Claude Chabrol’s 1995 film La Cérémonie. When Raquel goes to a fancy shopping district to buy the same sweater she saw in Pilar’s closet, even though it’s well outside her price range, does she intend to usurp her mistress’s position? When Pilar discovers photos in Raquel’s album with the eldest daughter’s face scratched out, is it a preview of a violent act to come?
As with his ignorance of neorealism, Silva insists he hadn’t seen or read any of the murderous maids texts before making The Maid. He says he wasn’t even aware the first hour verged on horror-film conventions until his co-screenwriter, Pedro Peirano, alerted him to the edge they were walking with the script. Silva explains that because he knew the real maid whom Raquel is based on, he knew from the start that the character would never cross over into an actual act of violence.
Instead, in a sudden and drastic change of genre, the film crosses over into heartwarming melodrama. The genre shift, occurring two-thirds of the way through the film, is the turning point of the whole movie and takes on tremendous power. No matter how many times I’ve seen The Maid, its pivotal scene never fails to entrance me.
The third and final contender for the new maid position, Lucy, returns from an evening jog and is confronted by Raquel in the kitchen. Raquel tries to force the interloper to perform cleaning tasks that, to Lucy, seem excessive and unnecessary. To break the tension, Lucy goes to take a shower. Raquel gets out her bottle of bleach and yellow rubber gloves and waits impatiently. After the shower, Lucy returns to the bathroom and discovers Raquel bleaching and scouring the tub where she’s just been—it’s an action we’ve seen Raquel do with the previous maids. Overwhelmed by the rush of poisonous fumes in the cramped space, Lucy gasps and covers her mouth. She grabs Raquel and shakes her, trying to pull her away from the tub. She weeps and pleads for her to stop. “My God, what did they do to you?” she cries.
It’s the key line of the whole film.
And just like that, everything changes.
VIII. Refusal of Judgment
The film’s controlling idea seems to be that only the love of a working-class peer can save Raquel, and not the false, or at least highly compromised, love of “her family.” A number of times during the first hour of the film, we hear Raquel insist, “The kids adore me.” The jaded older maid Sonia (played by Anita Reeves) rolls her eyes when she hears this. Lucy just stares at Raquel piteously. But at no point does anyone other than Raquel seem to believe it.
Thanks to Lucy, Raquel seems to wake up to the lies she has been telling herself, and has been told by her employers, to make her job and her situation bearable. But it wouldn’t be right to say Lucy’s role in the film is to raise Raquel’s political consciousness.
Silva explains in the interview:
I didn’t make an intentional social or political judgment about the institution of having maids, which is something that Chilean critics didn’t appreciate. The reviews stated that the movie lacked a political outlook. But that was absolutely intentional. I made the movie to exorcise my own demons, not to overthrow the institution of domestic help or to judge people who have maids. These folks are my parents. To demonize the patroness or make the job of a maid look humiliating would be patronizing for the more than 100,000…
The interviewer jumps in at this point to say that the number is closer to a quarter of a million: “I think there are 250,000 maids in Santiago alone.”
Surely demonizing people is a counterintuitive strategy for an exorcism. But how can Silva get rid of his own demons without challenging the institution of live-in maids, which he goes on to admit “has a flavor of slavery” to it?
I didn’t grow up with servants in the home, live-in or otherwise—unless I count my tirelessly doting grandmother, and I probably should. Still, I recognize Silva’s conflictedness. In another interview, he struggles to parse it out:
The first memory I have of maids that worked in my house has a rebellious feeling to it. It was because they were a third authority—I already had a father and a mother, and they were another authority figure at home that you didn’t want to be bossed around by. It was like, “Who are you, lady? Whoa, whoa, whoa! Nobody tells me when to eat!” I started feeling awkward having someone at home 24/7 and feeling that her authority was less than my parents’. Also, they were more illiterate than everybody else in the house, and we were much younger than them and already knew stuff that they didn’t know, so you would feel a little superior, in a way. All those factors together either makes you act like a fucking asshole towards them, feel superior, ignore them, or feel a little sympathy. But it wasn’t just sympathy, it was guilt, and I didn’t like that, because I wasn’t responsible: “Man, she’s hired here, I didn’t do anything.”
The sense of personal guilt Silva describes, and his frustration at having been born and raised into complicity with a corrupt system, is familiar, I’m sure, to many members of the privileged classes. It’s not hard for me, for instance, to transfer it to my experience growing up white and middle-class in America, even if my own childhood home was far more modest.
Since making The Maid, Silva has moved to New York and seems to have settled into the identity of a Brooklyn hipster. His statements in interviews often express maddening blind spots about his own privilege, even as his films seem to be concerned with little else (especially 2015’s Nasty Baby in which he portrays a hilariously self-absorbed artist living in Brooklyn who does adult-baby play as his latest art project). If The Maid were simply a fiction film, I might judge the skill, artistry, and politics of its director from a safe critical distance. But to recognize that the film is embedded in the real is to recognize that there is no safe critical distance. I also share the world with “Raquel.” Do I share Silva’s guilt? If so, why? If not, why not? If I feel that he has responsibility toward this woman, do I as well? What have I done, or what do I plan to do, to change the conditions of her one life on earth?
It probably doesn’t need to be said at this point, but I prefer a film like The Maid. A film that bleeds out from the margins of its fiction into the mess of the real world. A film that is best understood topographically. I prefer films that open themselves up to the unresolved problems of the world and hold us accountable, demanding some response—even if or when the filmmaker himself doesn’t know what that response should be, or ends up being as guilty of inaction as we are. I prefer such films to the hermetically-sealed ones that pass off representation, or empathy, as action—the ones that tell the right story in the right way with the right politics, and give us the complacent feeling that, through the simple fact of the film having been made and now being seen, the director and ourselves, the viewers, have accomplished something important.
X. The Academic
Silva is only two years younger than me, and, like me, he is a cis gay man, but it isn’t he among the participants in the film whom I identify with the most. I identify with (and take the most perverse pleasure from) the character Pilar, who is portrayed brilliantly by Claudia Celedón, because she’s an academic. Pilar’s job is easy to miss, but early in the film she tells her husband she is heading to the university, and a bit later she ends a phone call to Raquel by saying a student has shown up and she has to go. We never find out what she teaches, but I like to imagine she’s in the arts and humanities like I am. Maybe she teaches women’s studies.
Pilar’s complicity is compounded by the history of Chile. I get a strong sense (though I have no evidence from the film) that the Valdés family did not leave the country during the Pinochet regime. Pilar’s own mother pops up in a few scenes as a steel-hearted, haut-bourgeois matriarch played by Delfina Guzmán. She hears out her granddaughter Cami’s complaints about Raquel (Pilar doesn’t bring them up because she’s in denial that anything is wrong) and announces she knows just what to do. She’s seen these “maid fights” countless times, she says, and she will send in her own maid, Sonia, to whip Raquel into shape. When the elderly, no-nonsense Sonia arrives, it’s clear she didn’t learn her job in a home environment cloaked in illusions of cross-class fellowship or that the servants were part of the family.
Pilar is soft where her mother is hard. From one perspective, it’s Pilar’s gentleness and passivity that prevent Raquel from being fired or thrown out on the street. But the film also presents Pilar as the avatar of a liberal humanism that serves no other purpose than to keep the system in place. No doubt she can see structural inequality quite clearly, and she recognizes how she and her family benefit from it. But as the various problems arise with Raquel, she wrings her hands, mutters “oh dear,” and hopes that things will get better. Meanwhile, she enjoys her breakfast in bed.
What is perhaps most disturbing about The Maid is that things do get better, for Pilar and her family. Raquel becomes a much less disturbed and disruptive servant at the end of the film.
In the film’s penultimate sequence, Raquel throws a surprise party for Lucy and learns that her friend is leaving. Lucy is moving back to her home village, where she took Raquel as a guest for Christmas. The bombshell threatens to send Raquel spiraling back into self-destruction. But at the end of the film, we see that Raquel has internalized some of the love and respect that Lucy has shown her. She performs a modest act of self-care: she goes jogging. In a final long take, the camera tracks Raquel’s progress down the empty sidewalk, along the high walls of the other houses along the street. We watch as she slowly learns to hit her stride.
And that’s it.
That’s Raquel’s redemption.
Or her epiphany.
Or, more neutrally, the end of her character’s arc.
By my viewing, it’s a very effective ending. But it’s also terribly sad. Certainly, it’s face-punchingly inadequate as a solution to the problems brought up by the film.
But I guess it’s what actually happened.
XII. Fast Car
There’s a title card just before the closing credits that presents photographs of two maids and the caption: “A Jeannette y Marisol”.
We know that the maid who inspired Lucy still worked for Silva’s family during the shoot, that she served the cast and crew, advised Mariana Loyola on the part, and, according to Silva, became good friends with her.
But as for Raquel, what happened to her?
When an interviewer asked Silva if Raquel was based directly on the maid he grew up with, the director responded:
Yes. She was working with my family until I made the film, then I showed her the film, and she quit after two weeks. Since then, she’s been away living with someone that she loves and she has a car and she has her own life. I do see her sometimes on Skype, and say “Hey, how are you?” She liked the film a lot and I think it was great for her too to see herself portrayed in such a fair way.
Of all the conflicted statements Silva made in his interviews about The Maid, none confound me as much as this one. Did the maid quit because of the film, or did she like it a lot? Could it really be both? And what does the fact that she has a car have to do with anything? Why does Silva point this out? What does it mean for him? And what is it supposed to mean for us, the potential viewers of the film whom the interview is designed to reach?
The car is an image of mobility. I gather Silva would like us to know that the real Raquel isn’t trapped anymore. She’s escaped the claustrophobic confines of somebody else’s house, and she no longer confuses “love” or “her own life” with the affective labor she has been hired to perform for somebody else’s children.
Good for her. Great, really.
But as mobility goes, that car won’t get her anywhere close to the distances Silva and I have traveled.