Until its final act, Sebastián Silva’s The Maid plays like a horror film, charting as it does the increasingly antisocial—if not borderline-psychotic—actions of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), maid to a middle-class Chilean family for 20 years who seems increasingly on the verge of breaking into a full-on homicidal rampage. Silva’s film would have done well to follow that tack through to the end, since what it comes up with instead is more prosaic: the gradual reawakening of a spirit too long buried under loneliness, bitterness, and self-deceptions. Raquel is a sourpuss who behaves rudely to her employer Pilar (Claudia Celedón) and clashes with Pilar’s oldest daughter, all while iron-fistedly running a household in which, proven by a dinnertime door-closing, she is the hired help rather than, as she deludes herself into thinking, “one of the family.”
When Raquel’s exhaustion and misery lead to fainting spells, Pilar tries to alleviate her workload by hiring extra help, a move taken as a sign of marginalization by Raquel, who responds by pulling nasty pranks on her new co-workers that director Silva depicts in a comedic light that grates against his portrait’s social realism. Silva’s handheld close-ups and decision to confine most of the action to the family’s property generates claustrophobia, but his attempt to blend exaggerated humor with gritty, menacing drama laced with socio-economic tensions never quite gels. The reasons for her surliness left fuzzy, Raquel’s behavior feels at once too nasty to elicit genuine sympathy and, in those moments when she locks outside a young maid (Mercedes Villanueva) or a mean battleaxe (Anita Reeves), too jokey to be unsettling.
At the same time, the film’s taut focus on her deteriorating psychological condition—as well as its relatively thin, one-dimensional characterizations of the family with whom she lives, cares for, and identifies herself via—comes, to some extent, at the expense of any incisive analysis of upstairs-downstairs power dynamics. Nonetheless, Saavedra’s performance has an unwavering intensity that serves the film well, her refusal to endear us to the often-unlikable servant energizing the proceedings with a prickliness that lasts up until the limply anticlimactic uplifting conclusion.