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La Nana

Sebastián Silva

Of all the movies that I've seen this year, La Nana is the one that I'm most looking forward to seeing a second time. This is not to say that it's the movie that I can't wait to see again — hardly. At least half a dozen other pictures would squabble over that honor. But I can't think of any movies, offhand, that open upon so broad a range of possible outcomes. Not until the very end does Sebastián Silva declare his hand. His ability to hold one's interest without pointing it in a familiar direction is impressive.

It took me quite a while to read La Nana as a gentle comedy. This was partly because Catalina Saavedra's housemaid is so bottled-up. Countless movies have taught us that bottled-up characters eventually blow up! And it was partly because of the Marxian drift of cinema generally, according to which domestic servants are an oppressed class to whom the movies, at least, owe a certain righting justice. How long would it take Raquel to snap? How many members of her employer's family would she butcher as they slept?

Mr Silva has something more interesting in mind: a feature-length movie about a maid who has served the same household for twenty-three years. Having arrived at the age of 18, Raquel turns 41 in the film's opening scene. For reasons that Mr Silva wisely declines to explore, Raquel has let her private life melt into her working life. She has made beds, vacuumed floors, cooked dinners and washed up after them for over twenty years — and she hasn't done much else. Her mistress, Pilar (Claudia Celedón), is a sweet-natured university professor whose only real failing is an eagerness to endorse the first settlement of any household problem that comes up, no matter how unlikely it is to work in the long run. She is a good mother, but she gives her children too free a rein. She has no control whatsoever over her husband, Mundo (Alejandro Goic), a slacker who divides his time between the construction of model ships and often-surreptitious rounds of golf. And she endures her mother's cynical worldly wisdom with becoming humility. Pilar is both so well drawn and so often on screen that it wouldn't take much to push this fine film toward meriting the title La Señora.

There are four children in the house, two somewhat indistinguishable little boys and two teenagers with whom Raquel has somewhat overripe relationships. She and Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), the eldest, do not get on anymore; again, the reasons are occult. Far less mysterious is Raquel's adoration of the pubescent Lucas (Agustín Silva). Lucas is already a heartbreaker; still child enough to love donning a gorilla mask and scaring the bejesus out of his little brothers, he is man enough to stain his bedsheets methodically every night. One of the funniest scenes in La Nana has Pilar, to whom Raquel has evidently said something, confronting her son not so much about his masturbation as about his making work for Raquel. Lucas shoots up, as though he has just become two or three years older and several inches taller, and half shoves, half ushers his mother from the room, growling a protest that is intended to preclude the mortifying conversation that he is not going to have with his mother. Then Lucas goes outside and finds Raquel doing something in the yard. He walks up to her and hisses thanks! and turns on his heels. This shift in the balance of power means that Raquel has only one friend in the family — the boss.

Pilar knows that things are not going well with Raquel, who is afflicted by headaches and dizzy spells, but she has no trouble attributing Raquel's cranky weirdness (which inspires fears of axe murder in the audience) to overwork. This suggests the one solution that Raquel cannot abide, for, whether or not she is tired, she is fiercely territorial, and she has no intention of sharing her backstairs demesne with another woman. The plot of La Nana, such as it is, deploys a motif that's familiar from fairy tales: the third time is a charm. Raquel vanquishes two contenders (Mercedes Villanueva and Anita Reeves) before being tamed by a third. All three helper-outers are subjected to the same lame inconvenience: Raquel locks them out of the house. The first girl, Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) doesn't put up much of a fight, but the second one, the older Sonia (Anita Reeves), nearly kills herself trying to get back inside. All of this makes the response of the third, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), a delightful surprise.

Sebastián Silva casually examines everything that is dubious about paying someone to clean up after you, but he does not judge the parties to the transaction. What good would it do? Affluent Latin Americans don't really have the option of looking after themselves; too many people in their not-quite-developed economies would be thrown out of work, if the injustice of wearing a uniform and scrubbing other people's toilets were inconveniently stressed. If Raquel has gone too far down the road of self-immolation, she is not yet past the point of rehabilitation. In the film's gentle but slightly miraculous-feeling happy ending there is evidence that she has not, after all, given the best years of her life to people to whom she is not related.

Together with Ms Saavedra and Ms Celedón, Mariana Loyola composes a trinity of pitch-perfect actresses, and Mr Silva takes care to highlight their beauty. For even the bedraggled Raquel is lovely, when she finally has a moment of repose. The filmmaker clearly cherishes a view of domestic harmony that skirts drama and conflict for  prodding and negotiation. Nothing could be further from his vision than the idea that masters and servants are locked in bitter opposition, eternally challenging each other for the upper hand. Without winning or losing, everyone seems to come out ahead. (November 2009)

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