Latin American Society Indoors

in 31st International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana

by Fernando Salvà Grimalt

Domestic context as metaphor for political sphere, taken as a microcosm that portrays the same social inequalities prevailing in real life, confirms at last Havana Film Festival as an essential archetype in New Latin American cinema. It is the case at least for three of the competition feature films, Peruvian The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada), Chilean The Maid (La nana) – both received First and Second Coral Prize, respectively- and Bolivian Southern District (Zona Sur), each of them in its own particular way for dealing in depth with challenges in today’s changing Latin American society.

Juan Carlos Valdivia sets the story for Zona Sur by focusing on a big luxurious mansion located in the southern outskirts of Bolivian La Paz, where Carola -Patricio, Bernarda and Andrés’ single mother, lives day to day, trying to maintain their soon to be lost wealthy social status, with the help of servants, a group of Indian Natives headed by loyal butler Wilson. A series of circular sequence shots highlight the self-centred family, trapped in the house and unable to see the changes in the world outside. On the other hand, servants, who speak Native Aymara language among themselves – Valdivia doesn’t translate their dialogues because Whites are indifferent to their world and unable to understand it after all – start to take up a gradual increase in holding domestic power and, therefore, displace the dominant class… idiosyncrasy, a neighbourhood, and the country itself.

While the symbol of the future generation, Andrés, the family’s youngest, stays on the roof, dressed up with fake wings, aware that it is time for flying and that both getting away from the past and the house is a need, rebellion is set indoors. “I shout at you if I want, this is my house!”, Carola yells. “Stop shouting at me”, answers Wilson, just before slapping her. Rebellion will take place, but the director suggests that a peaceful deal between social classes would be possible, at the very last moment: Carola finally sells the mansion to a mixed-race female politician, Comadre Remedios. As territorial security is gone, Bolivian upper-middle class must ingratiate with Native culture and is forced to adopt another behaviour with “the others” if its aim is to survive.

Peruvian Claudia Llosa also hints at these sorts of changes in class conflicts, even if she doesn’t dare to propose a solution. La teta asustada is the name given to the disease that affects Fausta, which can be simply resumed as fear due to so much abuse and rape committed against Peruvian women during the terrorist years. In order to pay for her mother’s funeral, Fausta has to work as a maid for Aida, a rich White concert pianist who can’t find a way to write her new sonata. After having heard Fausta singing one of the Quechua songs she uses to exorcize her fear, Aida offers the maid a pearl for each song that she will sing for her: a very small price for the higher class to pay for the plundering of lower class cultural resources. Later on, Fausta unconsciously recalls the robbery she has committed against Aida and is violently expulsed. The young girl is the reminder for upper-middle class guilt: Claudia Llosa says that the wealthy in Peru close their windows for not seeing what is going on outside. Fausta’s path thoughout the film progresses from self-forced subjugation to liberation and transforms into a way for denouncing the Latin American neo-colonial imperialism forces that still exist.

Should we consider La teta asustada a guilty conscience reminder? It is likely the case, if we take into account that Llosa comes from the upper-middle class. Valdivia and Chilean Sebastián Silva have grown as upper-middle class boys too. Silva even goes further: La nana has been shot where he was raised and it is partly based on autobiographical facts.

La nana is a portrait of Raquel’s psychological decay, after 23 years working as a maid for a (Chilean capital) wealthy Santiago family. Raquel constantly lies to herself by believing that she belongs to the family, which is not true. The others have a life, an identity and a future, away from the insides of the house. The only possibility for Raquel is confined and defined as indoors. Even though Pilar, the matriarch, tries to cross the border between employer and employee by helping her in domestic tasks from time to time, and by organizing an anniversary party for her, she also forces Raquel to eat alone in the kitchen and uses a bell to summon her. Silva suggests that Pilar and her family need a relationship like the one that they have with Raquel in order to reassert themselves as the socially dominant: the head of the family complains that she cannot throw the maid out of the house, simply because she can’t do it.

This kind of maid’s figure is widespread in Chile as part of colonial heritage, means thousands of women working round-the-clock at others’ homes, sometimes with no salary and often with no working legal rights at all. Filmmaker Silva outlines a possible confrontation against this dominant perpetuation by making Lucy, one of the other servants in the house, shout to Raquel a supporting “What do they have done to you, what do they have done to you!”…

But the film seems to end up by being radically conservative: it ultimately forgets how the legitimacy of the maid’s role is solidly installed for Chileans, and simply assimilates it as a factual social domination pattern. The director says that the continuation of “the maid’s figure” as a tradition in Chile today is not a problem; the only problem is that the maid as portrayed in the film has emotional issues to be solved. When it is done, her distress will be over. End of story.

Edited by Tara Judah