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The Maid (La Nana) | reviews, news & interviews

The Maid (La Nana)

The Maid (La Nana)

Chilean film shifts from psychotic to sunny, but Catalina Saavedra impresses throughout

Not exactly Nanny McPhee: Catalina Saavedra stars as a maid whose life is, well, re-made

Domestics of varying kinds have always figured prominently in the cinema, from Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Mary Reilly. (Julia Roberts playing the hired help?

Uh, don't think so.) But there's rarely been as sullen and indrawn a family employee as the stone-faced Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), the eponymous nana, or maid, in the Chilean film of the same name. The script posits that Raquel has been working for the clearly prosperous Valdes family for 23 years and is going to carry on doing so, and what difference if she's an agent of destruction who hoovers mightily all the while wreaking havoc?

The movie scored a notable success at the 2009 Sundance Festival, and for much of the director and co-screenwriter Sebastian Silva's compelling if not always plausible 95 minutes, The Maid suggests a horror flick waiting to erupt into full fury; from a first glimpse of the large-eyed, monosyllabic Raquel, one can tell that all is not well. Her employers are keen to celebrate her 41st birthday and have a cake and various presents at the ready, but Raquel has to be cajoled at great length from her perch - sanctuary? - in the kitchen, where she blankly pushes around a plate full of food.

And when she does emerge, one charts at once the divisions that Raquel has engendered within the family: mum, Pilar (Claudia Celedon), is her champion, and so, for a while at least, is eldest son, Lucas (Agustin Silva), who finds a willing audience for his magic tricks in Raquel. (On the other hand, he's not pleased with Raquel's handling of this hormonally hyperactive adolescent's nocturnal emissions.) Daughter Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro) thinks Raquel is a bitch, an epithet that gets trotted out elsewhere so on some level must be true. And though the audience is left inevitably to make up its own mind, I can't imagine any cat-lovers wanting anything more to do with this woman once the film reaches the half-way point. Were the same incident to happen in England, Raquel would be on the Most Wanted list.

Tensions increase as Raquel takes not one but several bad tumbles, the result of headaches whose origins are left as opaque as details of this character's presumably unhappy past. (The screenplay is book-ended by brief if telling phone calls between Raquel and her mother, whom we never see.) In an effort to ease Raquel's workload, Pilar hires a succession of secondary maids, the first of whom, Mercedes (Mercedes Villaneuva), incites Raquel's wrath for what would appear to be the mere fact of being from Peru: the class system evidently lives in South America, as it does elsewhere.

Mercedes beats a teary retreat only to be replaced at the suggestion of Pilar's mum by the tougher and older Sonia (Anita Reeves), who engages Raquel in the film's only real bitch-slap. Quite why Pilar didn't learn from what happened before and make sure that Sonia always has with her a set of house keys is one of an accumulation of plot points on which it's best not to dwell. Suffice it to say that Sonia is soon history, as well, which prepares for the arrival of lucky number three in the sequence of deputy maids, namely Lucy (the vibrant Mariana Loyola). And she, all smiles and ready engagement, turns out to be the agent of change that neither Raquel - nor, to be honest, the audience - was expecting.

What follows is a wildly foreshortened essay in figurative re-birth whereby the put-upon maid, Raquel, is re-made as an actual human being, who at least discovers flesh (if not quite its joys) and discovers how to be properly at home in the company of others. The final image is sweet but seems to come from another film altogether, since the person we've been watching has perpetrated enough damage to have her sectioned.

One actually gets cross after a while with Pilar's tendency to defend Raquel at any price, which in turn makes one think that some sort of back story is going to illuminate what might have transpired years back between employers and employee; that bit of narrative never comes. The paterfamilias, Mundo (Alejandro Goic), is a quiet obsessive who leaves the running of the household to his wife while he continues crafting his model ships, the latest of which took a year to complete. His big outburst, when it happens, is glossed over entirely too quickly, though Goic, like the entire cast, is fully believable moment-to-moment even when the film's trajectory goes off course. (The likeable Lucas is in fact played by the director's own kid brother, Agustin Silva.)

Saavedra, in particular, impresses as a semi-infantilised adult - it's worth noting that she gets on effortlessly with the family's two youngest boys - who exists at odds with her own body and communicates a sense of being at once scary and scared. I'm pleased for Raquel that she learns by the film's end something about how to live, beyond obsessively scouring the tub. But if I were to suggest a next port of call once she ceases to be on the Valdes family's payroll, there's a guy called Norman Bates who, I am told, is looking for someone to do the housework.

Watch the trailer for The Maid (La Nana):

I can't imagine cat-lovers wanting anything more to do with this woman once the film reaches the half-way point'

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