Every once in awhile -- not often, but it happens -- a film appears out of nowhere that doesn't go where you expect it to go or do what you expect it to do. "The Maid" has that particular gift of leaving you off balance in the best possible way, and whenever something like that comes around you owe it to yourself to check it out.
To be honest, "The Maid" doesn't exactly come out of nowhere. It got two nominations, including best feature, at the Gotham Independent Film Awards earlier this week, and two key awards at Sundance: the jury award for world drama (besting "An Education" in the process) and a special jury prize for actress Catalina Saavedra's phenomenal starring performance. Not bad for the second movie by a young filmmaker from Chile, not previously known as a center for world cinema.
Propelled by the acting of Saavedra, one of that country's top talents, director and co-writer Sebastian Silva has come up with something quite special, a film that is both riveting character study and corrosive social commentary. And he's done it with what could be the most banal and predictable of topics, the dehumanizing effects servitude has on both servants and served.
But Silva, who dedicated the film to two of his childhood maids and even shot it in the Santiago, Chile, home where he grew up, sees past the obvious. Working with co-writer Pedro Peirano, and attuned to the ways familiarity can breed wide-ranging contempt, Silva smartly investigates the impossibility of this intimate yet impersonal relationship, exploring what inevitably goes wrong even when all sides are intent on doing what's right.
Doing just that much would be quite an accomplishment, but because Silva is psychologically acute, "The Maid" goes further, broadening the film's focus and exploring unlooked-for needs and nuances of behavior. I could be more specific, but that would ruin the fun.
None of this would be possible, the director would be the first to say, without the fearless, impeccable work of actress Saavedra, who initially turned down the part without reading the script because she felt she'd played too many maids. But 41-year-old Raquel, introduced on her birthday, is as far from the business-as-usual servant as you can get.
Wearing the black-and-white uniform she lives in six days a week, Raquel is introduced having dinner by herself in the kitchen. In the background she can hear the faint sounds of the upper class dining room conversation of a family of four, kids bickering, demanding PlayStation3, university professor mother Pilar (Claudia Celedon) and golf-addicted father Mundo (Alejandro Goic) futilely trying to restore order.
Sitting in that kitchen, simultaneously in the family group and not in it, typifies Raquel's status. She's worked for Pilar, Mundo and the children for 23 years, a lifetime of service, so it's no wonder she looks weary, but there is something else going on here, something that becomes visible when she is dragged back to the dining room to receive birthday presents. There is a balking, mulish quality to Raquel; she can be sullen, resentful and easily aggrieved. She may not want to be the center of attention, but she is very aware of what she thinks is her due.
The reality of the situation is that the grueling, exhausting nature of the job is starting to get to her. Raquel is the person who knows all the family secrets and does all the heavy lifting, both literally and psychologically, who awkwardly flirts with teenage son Lucas (Agustin Silva, the director's brother) and develops a blood feud with oldest daughter Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro).
A series of crippling headaches testifies to the seriousness of Raquel's situation, but when Pilar, trying to do a good deed, suggests bringing in another maid to help out, Raquel reacts badly. Very badly. Without friends and with her family far away, this job has become her entire life, and the only thing that makes her crazier than her work is the thought of losing it.
From here on in, "The Maid" shows us the wild and unpredictable things that transpire when Pilar does in fact bring other people into the house. Star Saavedra is too good an actress and co-writer/director Silva is much too knowing a filmmaker to make it look like solving problems is easy in any way, shape or form. But the creative team's humanity and sense of grace ensure that what happens in "The Maid" will resonate with everyone savvy enough to seek out this perceptive film -- accomplished, yet promising so much more -- and make it their own.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle's Town Center, Encino; Edwards Westpark 8, Irvine