“Live-In Maid,” (Cama adentro) which played briefly at the Film Forum in New York this year, is now available in DVD from Netflix and your better video stores. Set in Argentina during the depths of the economic crisis in 2001, it revolves around the relationship between Beba Pujol, an elderly upper-middle class divorcee who is becoming increasingly pauperized, and Dora, her maid of thirty years. Written and directed by Jorge Gaggero, it is a supremely insightful study of class relations and psychological dependency.
We first encounter Beba, a well-dressed prepossessing figure, striding into a pawn shop with a teapot on behalf of a fictional neighbor who has a broken foot. When the pawnbroker tells her that he can only offer a few dollars, she remonstrates with him: “But, this is English China.” In these few words, she symbolizes the snobbery and illusions of the Argentine upper class. A few days later, Dora replenishes her boss’s whiskey supply (she has become an alcoholic under the impact of pauperization), by pouring domestic booze into the empty British bottles once again in deference to these faded aristocratic aspirations.
Dora, however, is not a prisoner of such illusions. If Beba is a foolish Quixotic figure bent on living in the past, her maid is a Sancho Panza figure who is constantly reminding her superior of life’s brutal realities. When a phone goes dead, Beba blames it on a thunderstorm while Dora suggests it is the failure to pay a bill that is the cause.
Besides Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” “Live-In Maid” also is reminiscent of Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” a play about a ruined aristocracy that lives in the past. Their illusions are symbolized by the cherry orchard that was the crown jewel of an estate that has been sold to investors, while for Beba it is her oversized apartment that plays the same role. Your first reaction to seeing it is to wonder why a single woman would need a seven room apartment, not to speak of her utter reliance on Dora who she orders about as if she were a monarch. You cannot suppress a feeling of disgust when you see her demand that Dora bring her a cup of tea or a glass of whisky on a nearby table. You want to say, “Get off your lazy ass and get it yourself.”
Given the nature of domestic wage servitude, a form of labor exploitation that has one foot in slavery or feudalism, it is no surprise that Dora shows infinite patience in dealing with Beba. Precapitalist paternalism fosters a kind of dependency that makes the worker feel like a family member. Even though she hasn’t been paid in months, she has continued to stick with her until the last moment, when she is packing her things and moving to the countryside to live with her boyfriend Miguel, an amiable house-painter.
While not giving away too much, suffice it to say that there is a role reversal between the two women in the final moments of the film.
Beba is played by Norma Aleandro, a distinguished seventy-one year old veteran of Argentine film and theater. During the late 1970s, she was exiled to Uruguay because of her dissident political views. Later she moved to Spain and did not return to Argentina until 1982 when the military junta fell.
Her best known performance was in ”The Official Story,” the Academy Award best foreign-language film in 1985, where she plays a teacher whose life falls apart after learning that her adopted daughter was the child of political prisoners murdered by the military. It was this performance that convinced Gaggero to persuade her to play Beba.
Dora is played by Norma Argentina in her first acting role. When Gaggero issued a casting call for the role, he said he was looking for someone with no acting experience but who had been a maid. That was just one of the jobs the 59 year old had held. She showed up at the audition in bleach-stained blue sweat pants and convinced Gaggero that was just right for the role. Ironically, she held Norma Aleandro in awe in a way that mirrored the relationship between the two characters they played, at least in the early years of their relationship. Norma Argentina soon discovered that Norma Aleandro was no snob and was happy to treat her as a fellow professional.
In an interview with the N.Y. Times, Gaggero explained his motivation in making such a film:
”All over Latin America, not just in Argentina, houses are designed with a room for a live-in maid, for women who postpone their own lives for the sake of others and become consumed by a household,” Mr. Gaggero said. ”The relationship between a maid and her employer has elements of class conflict, but it is also symbiotic, and I felt that had never been adequately portrayed, either on television or in film.”