Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: La nana (The Maid)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Movie Review: La nana (The Maid)

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.


Sam Juliano said...

Yes, Tony, I saw this film a number of weeks ago during it's Manhattan opening and was mightily impressed. It comes close to a berth in the top ten in fact. Saavedra's minimalist performance is dead-on for this kind of reading, which as you rightly note centers around family loyalty. That sequence where teh aggressive helper was locked out and was ready to maul Saavedra was quite the hoot. But as you provocatively relate there's quite a bit to relish in this exquisite work.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'll second Sam in terms of praise for Saavedra's minimalist performance. Alas, the film left me cold, in part because the majority of the film is minimalist to a fault. The first two thirds of the film are basically the same thing over and over: Raquel feels threatened and acts out, feels threatened and acts out, etc, etc. By the time she evolves beyond this point, I had about shut down. Still, the final third of the film made me not regret experiencing the film, though I'd find it hard to recommend. The final shot of the film is rewarding, to be sure. I just wish The Maid didn't spend so much time in one place.

Good review.

Tony Dayoub said...

I think the repetition you mention, Jason, a)underscores the dreary life Raquel leads since her repeated torturing of each successive assistant serves as a source of diversion for her, b) it demonstrates a pattern of behavior, i.e. it isn't that she simply dislikes one assistant, and c) creates a sense of suspense when she finally meets Lucy, an assistant that the audience is easily able to identify with.

So I didn't find it minimalist in this regard. But I can certainly understand where you are coming from with your criticism.

Jason Bellamy said...

I totally agree, Tony. This is one of those cases where I recognize that the payoff of the conclusion is largely tied to the design of what came before. So the repetition does "work," and it's certainly justified. But it is a little tedious, too. I since think the motivation of the film is what happens in the final third, this movie feels like a lot of set-up.

Tony Dayoub said...

Yeah Jason, I agree that the film is structurally unusual in its approach to the setup. I guess where we disagree is I consider it to be one of the film's virtues.

Structurally (and only structurally) it reminds me of McCABE AND MRS. MILLER in that the setup builds to almost a critical mass before the falling action actually begins very late into the film.