In the Chilean drama The Maid, an upper-middle class family treats the title character like part of the family, but comparable to the way that the appendix is part of the body. Like a vestigial organ, a servant can be removed if she starts causing trouble.
Fears of being replaced bring out the worst in 41-year-old Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), who's spent two decades working for the same family and living under its roof. Raquel suffers from depression, headaches and misdirected anger, possibly because she subconsciously resents that she lacks a life of her own. She conceals the extent of her illness and acts out in increasingly obvious ways, including passive-aggressive behavior with the teenage daughter. Concerned that Raquel is overburdened, the lady of the house (Claudia Celedón) tries to hire additional help, but the veteran housekeeper worries she'll be cast out with nowhere to go.
The Maid proves highly engaging when it shows Raquel clash with three successive housekeepers, all with sharply different personality types. She sadistically terrorizes a meek Peruvian teenager and squabbles more overtly with a bad-tempered battle-axe. The latter conflict features such refreshing humor, you can't help but wonder how Raquel would fare against other famous domestics, like Bette Davis in The Nanny or "The Jetsons'" robot. The more Raquel pushes back in the household power struggle, the more she alienates her natural allies, like the family's three young sons.
From the first scene, as Raquel eats alone in the kitchen while the family enjoys themselves in the dining room, Saavedra makes her face a mask of sorrow. She appears devastated before the movie even begins, but even at her moments of inexcusable cruelty, Saavedra conveys her complexity of emotions. In a way, the audience probably understands her better than Raquel understands herself. The occasional half-glimpses of her nude body in the shower indicate that there's a woman underneath the shapeless black maid's uniform, even though she keeps her feelings thoroughly repressed
Rather than simply offer a character study marked by decline and neglect, The Maid builds to some positive notes without oversimplifying Raquel's predicament. Even when the emotions get messy, The Maid cleans up nicely.