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After 30 years, she is more than just 'the help'

'Live-in Maid' offers an intimate portrait of a complex relationship and a side of Latin America rarely seen.

August 31, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Among Latin Americans of any means at all, live-in domestic help is an everyday part of middle-class life, neither remarkable nor grand. I mention this because it's crucial in understanding Argentinean director Jorge Gaggero's wonderful "Live-in Maid," which garnered the special jury prize at Sundance in 2005. The story of a housekeeper's final days in the home of her employer of 30 years, the film hinges on a set-up that, to American eyes, may look rarefied, but is in fact commonplace.

"Live-in Maid" explores the emotional side of the reality of two societies living in very close, often intimate, proximity without dwelling on the politics or resorting to polemic. It paints a lovely, intimate portrait of a complex relationship and shows a side of Latin American life we rarely see on American screens. Despite marked socioeconomic differences, on a macro level, everyone is in the same boat.

The film stars Norma Aleandro as Beba Pujol, a divorced Buenos Aires bourgeoisie fallen on hard times, and Norma Argentina as Dora, her maid. The film takes places in the aftermath of yet another collapse of the Argentinean economy and devaluation of its currency, around 2001. When we first see Beba -- a not uncommon nickname that also means "baby girl" -- she is shamefacedly trying to hawk a porcelain teapot to an underwhelmed pawnbroker under the guise of doing an ill neighbor a favor. When she gets home, she is greeted by Dora, who asks Beba if she remembers what day it is. Of course, she does. It's payday. And there isn't a thing she can do about it.

Beba has been unable to pay Dora's wages for seven months. In the following scene, which is as small and spare as it is wrenching, we learn that Dora has given notice and plans to move with her boyfriend to an outlying working class neighborhood.

The women are the same age, but Beba speaks to Dora as if she were a young girl, unleashing a torrent of unsolicited advice that infuriates Dora for its presumption, its self-delusion and its annoying accuracy.

Dora's boyfriend Miguel, Beba says, is not the man for her. The neighborhood she is moving to is nothing like the upper-middle-class Belgrano, where she has lived her entire adult life. She'd be better off marrying the doorman of their building, where she could continue to "live like a lady." Beba knows Dora likes the doorman, because she knows they've spent the night in Dora's room off the kitchen on more than one occasion. "This isn't a big apartment, you know," Beba says. "You can hear everything."

As aggressive as is Beba's incursion into Dora's private life, it reveals Beba's desperation at being abandoned by the last member of her family. Her husband left long ago, her daughter has moved to Spain and rarely calls. Dora not only reflects an image of herself as she once was, in happier and more prosperous times, but she takes care of her, looks out for her and is her closest companion.

By the same token, Dora's furious response to Beba's meddling -- she pretends to accidentally shatter a plate just to shut her up -- conveys among other things her impotence at the situation. When Beba can't come up with 20 pesos for detergent, Dora slams her shopping cart back in the closet and says, "Fine! We won't clean anymore. We'll put covers on the furniture and leave it at that."

As self-absorbed and careless as Beba is, she is also an object of pity for the formidable Dora, whose dignity and capacity for empathy are admired by all who know her and matched by none. But what at first seems like a freighted, borderline abusive relationship -- an "Upstairs, Downstairs" version of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" -- reveals itself to be an insightful and empathetic look at a symbiotic relationship in which there has been much give-and-take. We learn that Beba has been a friend to Dora in times of need, but also that after 30 years with the family, Dora has earned the right to call things as she sees them and to airily vent her frustration.

For all its flaws, the Pujol family is Dora's family too. (When Beba's daughter calls, it's usually to talk to Dora.) Their standards are her standards. When she and her boyfriend choose the flooring for their house, she insists on the more expensive one, telling him, "but this one is higher quality." Miguel couldn't care less about the floor -- he abandons the project before it's completed. But when Beba comes to visit, its quality is the first thing she notices. Dora apologizes for the job half-done, but Beba shrugs, "details."

Gaggero's film locates an entire universe, history and current reality in a medium-size Buenos Aires apartment. Intertwined as they are removed from each other, intimate as they are strangers, Beba and Dora could be seen -- though, clearly, it's not Gaggero's intent that we do -- as a microcosm of Latin American society.

But we probably get to do that enough already. What "Live-in Maid" offers instead, just this once, is a pitch-perfect observation of life on a continent where forms are adhered to, distances aren't really kept, and your best friend is the person who knows to pour the cheap domestic whiskey into the empty bottle of imported stuff before your bridge buddies show up to judge you.


MPAA rating: Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. In limited release.

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