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Buenos Aires is one of the world capitals of bourgeois pretense, a city tipsy on the fumes of its former status as the “Paris of Latin America.” That self-deluding disposition is embodied in Beba (Norma Aleandro), half of the central duo in Live-In Maid, writer-director Jorge Gaggero’s impeccably rendered miniature of a film. Like her homeland, Beba is practiced at enduring crises, keeping up appearances, and pretending nothing has changed.
Beba has always been respectably middle-class, a status she refuses to relinquish just because her life and the Argentine economy are in crisis. Though her husband has left her and her daughter has moved to Madrid without a backward glance, Beba maintains a large and sparkling Buenos Aires apartment, complete with longtime live-in maid Dora (Norma Argentina). But selling her china and jewelry—she insists to the pawnbroker that it belongs to an ailing neighbor—isn’t enough to pay the bills. Wheedling money from her ex and signing up with an Avon-like cosmetics peddler, Beba tries to forestall the inevitable, even as the strain behind the façade becomes overwhelming. Dora, who has gone unpaid for seven months, finds it easier to face economic facts; she’s leaving, the maid announces, although she has no prospects other than a boyfriend who shows little interest in work.
This domestic-scaled parable is set primarily in Beba’s apartment, a microcosm of life in formerly prosperous Buenos Aires and a stage set for the two women’s relationship, which has been carefully scripted but is now subject to improvisation. The movie ultimately shifts from one household to another, as Beba goes to visit Dora in her scruffy new neighborhood. The former maid lives in circumstances that Beba couldn’t abide, yet her erstwhile boss notices that her own upscale taste has influenced Dora’s half-finished renovations. While the two can’t step entirely out of their former roles, Beba indirectly acknowledges that they are more than employer and ex-employee.
In his debut feature, Gaggero makes the most of simple gestures: Beba marshals a freezer’s worth of ice to accompany her last few drops of whiskey, and Dora “accidentally” smashes a plate to halt her employer’s natterings. Now finally in commercial U.S. release after three years on the international filmfest circuit, the film is another exemplary role for the great Aleandro, who’s Argentinian screen royalty. (She’s probably best known here for 1985’s The Official Story, a darker tale of self-deception, in which she plays a politically well-connected woman who gradually realizes that her adopted daughter is the child of two of the many leftists “disappeared” under the country’s military rule.) The films pairs Aleandro, a diva playing a diva, with Argentina, a nonprofessional who actually had been a housekeeper. They prove ideally matched and entirely convincing.
Don’t expect a climactic meltdown. Missing teapots and broken crockery aside, this is not the sort of film in which veneers shatter, truths tumble free, and people are utterly transformed. This gently perceptive drama is a tale of gradual acceptance, both of economic reality and of friendship across now-blurred class lines. Just because Beba must retrench doesn’t mean she has to blubber, scream, or throw things. Live-In Maid would be more dramatic if she did, but it would also be less authentic.