by Tony Dayoub
One of the hidden advantages of watching a foreign film is its ability to subvert your expectations. The new Chilean picture, La nana (The Maid), methodically reveals the persona of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), the titular servant. Its pace is no surprise to anyone well versed in world cinema. Only in the U.S. are audiences conditioned to be immediately gratified by even the most artful of films.
Director Sebastián Silva takes viewers almost invasively into Raquel's daily life. This level of intimacy makes one painfully aware of the complete lack of privacy that this housekeeper contends with daily. Whatever mood she's in, whatever personal feelings she has for individual members of the family (her feelings for the oldest daughter are... complicated), Raquel has nowhere to hide. She is still obliged to serve the family. When Raquel's sympathetic boss, Pilar (Claudia Celedón) realizes she is overworked and exhausted, she resolves to get her some help.
Saavedra's performance as Raquel is a perfect study in minimalism. The repressed maid is twitchy, and at times a bit frightening, in her repression. Unable to physically express her fear of losing the job she is so dependent on and unwilling to believe that Pilar truly appreciates her as a person, Saavedra allows her buggy eyes to reveal the maid's nervous terror of becoming obsolete. As a succession of assistants comes into the household, the maid's passive aggression comes to the fore. She drives each of them out by either disinfecting their shared bathroom every time they take a shower or by locking them out of the house when they step outside or a combination of both. She only bonds with another assistant she locked out, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), after discovering her hilarious response: sunbathing topless in the front yard.
It is astonishing how skillfully Silva deliberately plays on cinematic tropes that are de rigueur in the U.S. to create suspense. Anyone used to the contrivances of American films can feel La nana's rhythms building to some revelation that she is insane. Her irrational aggression to even the kindest assistant; her donning of a gorilla mask heavy with metaphorical conclusions; her decision to hide a new kitty cat in a drawer, then finally throw her over a garden wall; all of these could be viewed in the context of a horror movie with a paranoid obsessive protagonist. But Silva repeatedly upends such assumptions in favor of verisimilitude. Silva elevates the film by striving for the realism of a black comedy rather than a contrived scary movie.
La nana is an engrossing example of the virtues of smaller scale foreign films, and a welcome respite from the mainstream Oscar-bait currently showing in theatres.
La nana (The Maid) is in limited release, and opens tomorrow in Atlanta at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive North East, Atlanta, GA 30308.