Live-in Maid (Cama Adentro) is set in Argentina in 2001 during the financial crisis that devastated the economy, and the film examines the shifting relationship between a middle-aged woman and her live-in maid. Divorced, upper-middle class Beba Pujol (Norma Aleandro) is used to a pampered life, and that’s largely due to the constant ministrations of her faithful maid of 28 years, Dora (Norma Argentina). The two women serve as a contrast in economic opposites. Whereas Beba is manicured, expensively dressed, and coiffed, Dora is heavy-set, and her haggard appearance is secondary to her function as a workhorse.
When the film begins, the economic crisis is already underway in Argentina, and Beba is feeling the results, but she’s in denial. Unable to pay her maid for over seven months, she has just begun to join the masses in attempting to sell any precious possessions for a little cash. While many lay their wares on the sidewalks, in Beba’s case, she enters a shop and masquerades as a customer before she’s driven by necessity to explain her purpose–the sale of her china teapot to the shop owner.
Beba is used to privilege, and so it’s very difficult for her to adjust to a new life based on poverty. She still expects the maid to fill her glass with whisky, and she still expects to have her hair done even though at this point, she can’t even pay her maid for keeping her large Buenos Aires apartment spotless. Dora gets room and board for her efforts, but she is unpaid labour. Since the relationship between Beba and Dora is supposed to be a financial transaction (Dora works and Beba pays), when Dora is faced with the prospect of never getting paid, the relationship between the two women is severed. But this also allows the women to renegotiate their relationship outside of monetary considerations.
Live-in Maid is not an overtly political film, but nonetheless it addresses many relevant social issues. These two women are actually the single most important figure in each other’s lives. Beba’s only child lives in Spain, and Dora has a long-term relationship supporting the very shady Manuel. For 28 years, Dora has ‘served’ Beba, and there are many things they both accept about the inequity of their relationship. There’s a moment when Beba offers Dora a better, larger bedroom, but Dora rejects it. Their relationship cannot shift from its old paradigm so easily. Even though Beba is penniless and is exploiting Dora, it’s difficult for her to let Dora go, and it’s equally difficult for Dora to leave even though she’s not getting paid. The financial aspects of the relationship mask the emotional commitment they both feel.
In the beginning of the film, Beba is not a particularly sympathetic character. Her refusal to give up luxuries–such as hair appointments and whisky seem to reflect her shallow, materialistic character. But a few scenes later, after many humiliations, Beba chokes on a meal she accepts in lieu of cash payment for make-up she is trying to sell, and this incident acts as a wake-up call for Beba. This film could so easily have slipped into sticky sweet sentimental drama, but instead Live-in Maid maintains a crystal clear poignant portrait of two women who desperately need each other, but who are reluctant to admit it. Instead it is easier for them both to cling to the defining financial transaction–something that passes all too often as a substitute for a relationship with another human being, and once that financial transaction is abandoned, the women are free to redefine their relationship on new ground. From director Jorge Gaggero, Live-in Maid is in Spanish with subtitles.