- Directed and co-written by Sebastian Silva
- Starring Catalina Saavedra
- Classification: 14A
At the no longer tender age of 41, Raquel has spent all her adult life confined in the benign prison of domestic service. Since her late teens, she's worked as a live-in maid and nanny for an upper-class Santiago household, becoming over the years almost a member of the family. That "almost" is her triumph but her tragedy too - it forms the ambiguous heart of this Chilean film, a little gem of social realism that makes up in polish what it lacks in consistency.
In the classic Upstairs, Downstairs tales of the Victorian era, the lines between master and servant were clearly drawn. But they're blurred these days, and director Sebastian Silva has a keen eye for the consequences. So the early scenes are a nuanced study of behaviour in a confused hierarchy. For example, it's apparent that the kindly Pilar, the ostensible mistress of the house, is somewhat cowed by Raquel, who, unlike her, knows how the appliances operate and where the sugar is stored. What's more, Raquel has taken the practical lead in raising the four children, waking them early, feeding them, packing them off to school. Again, she's almost their mother, but not.
However, and here's where the sociology gets intriguing, Raquel has in many ways remained a child herself. Her duties may be adult, but she's performed them in a borrowed environment that has stunted her emotional development - cut off from her rural roots, lacking the time or motivation to foster friendships or romantic love, to grow into a life that's hers alone. In the title role, Catalina Saavedra evocatively captures this second layer of ambiguity, the childish streak that still runs deep through a middle-aged woman.
We watch this streak in her preferential treatment of the teenage son, whom she adores, and in her sly mistreatment of the teenage daughter, whom she sees almost as a rival. And we detect it in her frightened eyes when Pilar hires another maid to help with the workload. Resorting to petty cruelties, Raquel hounds the interloper right out of the house. But when she does the same to the next candidate, the repetition brings the picture to a halt, and the hitherto consistent tone gets a bit erratic - what once was wryly observant turns clumsily comic.
Yet the momentum is regained with the arrival of the third recruit. Hailing from a similar background, but far more spirited, Lucy (Mariana Loyola) treats Raquel as no one in the family can - as an unambiguous equal. Consequently, Lucy is able to see what the others are blind to - Raquel's fears and self-deceptions and, above all, her profound loneliness. The two bond, swapping jokes, sharing a Christmas back in the country, and, slowly, a lifelong servant looks to be gaining some of the tools needed to master her independent identity.
Some of the tools, yet far from all. Silva is no sentimentalist, and he knows that certain bad habits are unbreakable, especially the kind that do their bad work in the good name of comfort and security. So the ending is a return to ambiguity. Has the maid really changed, or simply traded in one uniform for another? You can decide, or wait for Hollywood to decide for you. Yes, this is just the sort of delicate foreign film that the studios like to remake, cranking up the volume and sugaring the plot. Best to taste it now, when the bitter still mingles with the sweet.