Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) dreads her birthday. This much is clear as she bends over her work in the kitchen, not quite cringing at the sound of voices from the dining room. A cut to the table shows family members pulling out brightly papered gifts and a cake, shuffling to arrange themselves as if to surprise her. Inside the kitchen, Raquel sits down to her own plate, pushing potatoes and hunching her shoulders. Teenaged Lucas (Agustín Silva) calls to her, and when she doesn’t respond, he comes to fetch her. Finally, Raquel submits: she smiles and shrugs and says thank you. And then, after a bite of cake, she starts to clean up. Pilar (Claudia Celedón), the mother, protests, “I refuse to let you do the dishes now.” Raquel scowls, “If I don’t do them now, I have to do them later.” Pilar nods. Raquel’s right.
Full of tension, this first scene in The Maid (La Nana) sets up Raquel’s grim and limited world. The house, white and large and multi-floored in the Santiago suburbs — is her domain during the day, though her tiny bedroom off the kitchen is where she spends her hours off. Following the birthday moment, she arranges the presents on her bed. When she opens them (after finishing the dishes), the process is abrupt and her affect childish, as she tears at the wrapping and looks briefly at a generic-seeming sweater, before depositing all on the floor. She’s not precisely unhappy, you guess, but she’s also odd and nervous, and for all her years of this routine life (some 20 years working for the Valdezes), discomfited.
At this point, with the focus so intently on Raquel’s confines of mind and body, The Maid might seem headed toward a big finish, one of those slowly developing explosions of class rage where servants hack up employers then stare at themselves in mirrors so viewers can feel assured of their difference from such deviants. Indeed, Raquel displays more signs of an emergent violence, suffering headaches to the point of blacking out and resenting even the slightest disruption, as when eldest daughter Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro) brings home a kitten. But the film is interested in other consequences, so much Raquel’s effects on her employers, who remain blithely ignorant (and rich), about their effects on her.
This point materializes subtly, with hints in that first birthday night uneasiness as well as just about every scene that follows. Raquel takes minor pleasures in her control of details — she hides the kids’ treats in a bag under her own bed (as opposed to the kitchen), she determines when to run the vacuum cleaner in the morning, and she sets up breakfast the night before, meaning the kitchen cannot be disturbed once she does so. While cleaning, she picks up and puts on one a gorilla mask the kids have been using to scare one another, then turns to the mirror. The film stops for an instant, letting you contemplate this shrewdly allusive image. Raquel sees herself, her job, her employers, her future and her past, and you see it too.
When Pilar, feeling cowed but also entitled, decides to make Raquel’s life “easier” by hiring a kitchen helper (“This house is too big for you”), the maid flies into a panic. This translates into stranger and stranger behaviors, which include locking the newbies out of the house. Raquel’s efforts to intimidate or at least annoy the women she sees as rivals succeed — they last mere days before they quit — until she runs into Lucy (Mariana Loyola). Self-sufficient and big-hearted, Lucy doesn’t see Raquel as a threat so much as a sister, someone deserving of understanding rather than confrontation.
Even at this point, as Lucy’s insights change the way you might perceive Raquel, the family remains pretty much impervious to a shift in perspective. Pilar expects meals to be served, the kids expect their beds to be made, and Mr. Valdez, Mundo (Alejandro Goic), expects her to keep his secrets, namely, that he takes the day off to play golf. Their concerns are at once mundane and arrogant, markers of an ancient and grinding class divide. Lucy’s relative newness to the service class is impelled by practical needs (a job, not a life’s commitment) and in conflict with her relationship with her own family, as opposed to the replacement of family Raquel acts out in teary phone calls with her mother.
With Lucy offering a new model of self-identity, Raquel doesn’t so much change as she comes to be able to imagine change. This is the movie’s great insight, that plot is less compelling than perspective. The Maid invites viewers to see themselves, not in reflections of haunted eyes mirrors or abrupt aggression, but in their own small worlds, shaped by expectations and habits and jealousies and fears. As Raquel dons a walkman and heads out to jog one evening, the camera moves with her, at last. And you see that she sees her world differently.