Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but for the title character of the pitch-black Chilean comedy The Maid, it's closer to an infernal torment. For more than 20 years, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has worked as the hired help for an upper-class Santiago family, the Valdezes, whom she has served with the dedication of a novitiate — swaddling the children when they were young, changing their cum-stained bedsheets, and suffering their moody rebukes as they reached adolescence. But as Raquel celebrates her 41st birthday, her labors have taken their Sisyphean toll. Her unkempt curls droop down around a face wrought into a permanent scowl, and she suffers from painful migraines and sudden fainting spells. So the Valdezes propose hiring a second maid to relieve Raquel of some of her responsibilities, which she, in turn, takes as a declaration of war.
One by one the reinforcements arrive, only to meet the full force of Raquel's passive aggression. When comely au pair Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) shows up on the scene, Raquel takes to locking her out of the house and violently scouring the bathroom after she showers, until the young Peruvian girl runs away in tears. Her replacement, a grizzled lifer who refers to employers as "ingrates," puts up more of a fight — literally, in one scene, where she and Raquel come to blows — only to eventually head for the hills. But the third time proves something like a charm in the form of Lucy (Mariana Loyola), a fount of perky energy — she goes for early-morning jogs before starting her daily chores — who is either immune to Raquel's offensives or, perhaps, a little bit crazy herself. When Raquel tries the old bathroom-scouring routine on her, Lucy responds by giving her a tearful bear hug; when Raquel locks her out, she seizes the opportunity for some impromptu nude sunbathing on the lawn.
The Remains of the Day as reimagined by a budding Luis Buñuel, The Maid was co-written and directed by 30-year-old Sebastián Silva, who shot the film in the house where he grew up and based it, in part, on events from his childhood. Not surprisingly, he brings an ultraspecific feel to a potentially boilerplate class-relations satire, from the details of Raquel's living space (a twin bed dotted with stuffed animals; a nightstand drawer filled with used gift-wrap) to the absurd tedium of her daily routine (vacuuming the underside of chair cushions; mopping already-clean floors). Neither a crude lampoon of domestic servitude nor a knee-jerk skewering of the bourgeoisie, the movie deftly shifts its point of view from downstairs to upstairs and back again, always keeping us off-balance as to where — if anywhere — its sympathies lie. At one point, a model ship one year in the making is hauled out as the ultimate symbol of privileged leisure; at another, family snapshots with scratched-out faces suggest that Raquel (who has more than mere anger pent up inside her) may bear homicidal tendencies worthy of Jean Genet's iconic cleaning ladies. Never, though, does Silva compromise his characters' fundamental dignity as he navigates the peculiar institution of live-in help and the toll it takes on all concerned parties.
In a remarkable performance that won her a special award from the world cinema jury at this year's Sundance Film Festival (which also gave Silva's film its Grand Jury Prize), Chilean television vet Saavedra goes through one of the most uncanny psychophysical transformations I've ever seen in a movie without the benefit of obvious makeup or other prosthetics. For most of The Maid's running time, she exudes a troll-like presence, hunched over and turned in on herself, scurrying about the house as if trying not to be seen. Then, as Lucy comes into her life, she straightens and brightens and looks at least a decade younger. The two women share a wonderful chemistry, capped by a lovely scene in which Lucy invites Raquel to spend Christmas with her family in the countryside. The effect is not exactly one of a swan becoming a princess — Silva is too acerbic for that — but as The Maid ends on a characteristically ambiguous note, it finds something like triumph in the image of a newly self-confident woman strapping on a pair of sweatpants and going for a jog.