Everybody hurts: La Nana ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2009)

Upstairs, creepy stares: Catalina Saavedra in The Maid

Mike Leigh, meet Sebastian Silva. With his second feature, La Nana (aka The Maid) the Chilean writer-director has made a beautifully acted little film that plays like a telenovela, black comedy, intimate character study and social commentary, all rolled into one.

Catalina Saavedra is a revelation as Raquel, a live-in maid employed by an upper-middle class family in Santiago for over 20 years. More than just a housekeeper, she has been the nanny to all the children since birth, and is considered a family member. However, despite her dedicated years of service with the loving clan, who (with the exception of one of the daughters) treat her with the utmost deference and respect, Raquel vibes a glum countenance; she remains emotionally guarded and cryptically aloof much of the time.

When some chronic health issues begin to compromise her efficiency, the mother (Claudia Celedon) decides to hire a second maid to give her a hand. The territorial Raquel is not at all pleased; passive-aggressiveness escalates into open hostility as we watch her transform into a veritable Cruella DeVille.

After manipulatively hastening the departures of two new hires in rapid succession, Raquel suddenly finds herself facing a formidable “opponent”. Her name is Lucy (Mariana Loyola). Her weapons are serenity and compassion. No matter what amount of bad vibes or acts of spite Raquel hurtles in her direction, they all appear to incinerate harmlessly in the aura of Lucy’s perennially sunny disposition before they can reach their target.

Then, something miraculous begins to unfold-Raquel’s seemingly impenetrable defensive shell cracks, and as it does, the emotional repression of 42 years slowly peels away, resulting in unexpectedly delightful and engaging twists and turns.

Initially, I was reminded of Joseph Losey’s dark class struggle allegory, The Servant; but as the film switched gears, I found it closer  to the more recent Happy Go Lucky. Saavedra’s wonderful and fearless performance is the heart of the film. In less sensitive hands, the character of Raquel could have easily been an unsympathetic cartoon villain, but Saavedra never allows her character’s humanity to slip from our view. Raquel is a reminder that everybody deserves a chance to be loved and understood. And that’s a good thing.

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