From IMITATION OF LIFE to PASSION FISH, the relationship between a woman and her female housekeeper/caretaker/maid has served as the source of a good story and an insightful critique of the society they represent. In the best of these films, what begins as a financial arrangement rooted in a class system based on wealth and, all too often, race, soon evolves into a deeper, more emotional relationship shared by people who, despite outward differences, are fundamentally second-class citizens in a culture that values men over women. Argentine director Jorge Gaggero's funny, perfectly pitched heart-tugger shows us what happens to such relationships when the society that maintains them begins to break down, as was the case during the economic and social upheaval that beset Argentina in 2001.
Imperious Beatriz "Beba" Pujol (Norma Aleandro) is a lot like Argentina itself on the eve of its 2001 economic nightmare: sophisticated, elegant and flat broke. Once a woman of means living in a large suburban home, Beba and her then-husband, Victor (Marcos Mundstock), frittered away most of Beba's inheritance through poor investments and shaky financial schemes. While Victor makes another go of it selling golf equipment, Beba is on her own, virtually penniless and living a life of false luxury with the sole remnant of her bygone affluence: Beba's live-in maid, Dora (Norma Argentina). But even her relationship with her maid is a sham: Beba hasn't paid Dora in months and can't even afford to reimburse her poor housekeeper when Dora pays for groceries out of her own pocket. Beba keeps promising that she'll pay Dora as soon as she gets some income from her new job — she's recently become a retailer for a Mary Kay Cosmetics-style skin-care company — but her embarrassing circumstances don't stop Beba from playing the diva to the hilt, barking drink orders, insisting Dora work on her day off to serve her friends over a game of cards, and poking her nose into Dora's personal affairs. For all her disgruntlement, Dora puts up with it, and the real substance of their relationship soon reveals itself in the small kindnesses they perform for each other — the way Dora tenderly removes a shard of ceramic from Beba's foot, the obvious affection with which Beba applies a mud mask to Dora's face — and the unspoken ways in which Dora colludes with Beba to protect her feelings: how she pours cheap domestic booze in fancy green imported bottles to fool Beba's snobby friends, and tries to hide the fact that Beba's daughter, Guillermina, has no intention of visiting for the holidays. Dora, however, needs money to live — she and her boyfriend, Miguel (Raul Panguinao), are trying to finish the new home they're building for themselves out in the countryside — and she begins to act out in small ways while threatening to quit. And then, one day, she does.
The break between employer and employee proves so traumatic that the truth becomes poignantly obvious: These very different women are friends. On a practical level, they also need each other to survive. Dora quickly learns there are few jobs to be had, particularly jobs that pay, and without Dora, Beba faces the very real danger of starving to death. The economic and social crisis that rocked Buenos Aires is only obliquely referred to, but in the character of Beba — so beautifully played by the great Norma Aleandro — we see the image of Argentina: a dignified beauty laid low by economic catastrophe. leave a comment --Ken Fox