Some filmmakers try and fail to capture the day-to-day struggles of both the rich and poor, ending up with something closer to an after-school special than a quality film; as an example of this, one need not look further than Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004) which, despite being more about race than class differences, approaches its subject with all the artistic nuance of a bull in a china shop. Despite the difficulty with translating these kinds of stories to the big screen, one subject that has always captivated audiences is the formerly rich; when societies and economies crumble, it is the wealthy that have the farthest to fall. Though it is not enjoyable to see anyone descend into a state of destitution, there is a sense of grim satisfaction that we feel when seeing the snobbish as paupers, begging for mercy from those that they had previously treated as inferior beings. Nonetheless, it is depressing, because people are still people, and suffering is still suffering.
Cama Adentro, which actually translates to “Bed Inside,” a reference that audiences will not understand until the very end of the film, was released in the United States as Live-In Maid (and in Spain as Señora Beba). Though the US title implies that a maid will be the focus of the story, it is actually a former socialite and the employer of said maid that receives the majority of our attention. Despite the lopsided screen time, The film still finds time to focus on the lives of both the employer and employee, juxtaposing their differing experiences of the same historical event.
The film takes place in Buenos Aires during the economic crisis of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Following a period of economic growth in the 1990’s, the crisis saw unprecedented unemployment and poverty, riots, and the fall of the presiding government. The film focuses on Beba (Norma Aleandro), a middle-aged woman who, without her former wealth, is now relegated to selling beauty products to her friends and local businesses. Her daughter doesn’t return her calls, and her ex-husband, whose business has kept him afloat during the economic collapse, offers her little more than sympathy. As a result, Beba spends her days guzzling whiskey in her empty apartment, desperately clinging to the vestiges of her past. The one person who has remained by her side is Dora (Norma Argentina), the maid who has put up with Beba’s mistreatment for decades. However, as the crisis takes hold of the country, no one is able to escape its clutches. Beba promises Dora payment for her work, but when she defaults for several months, Dora decides to leave and pursue work elsewhere, leaving Beba to overcome the humiliation of losing everything on her own.
It is risky to use such a stark juxtaposition as the basis of any film, as it runs the risk of losing all subtlety, but Cama Adentro never falls into this trap. Dora is a maid who has always been a member of the working poor, spending the majority of her life saving up to build a very humble house for herself and her boyfriend, Miguel. So when the economy collapses, her life continues much the same as it did before. This is merely the newest hardship in a long string of hardships. On the other hand, Beba, who it seems has never known hard times, is like a ship lost at sea, unable to gain any bearing in this frightening new world. We are made to empathize with both women, since their circumstances are, in a sense, equally pitiable, albeit for different reasons.
What is most striking about Cama Adentro is the simplicity with which the filmmakers tell their story. The larger crisis is only occasionally mentioned, allowing the viewer to focus on the results rather than the cause. Every small injustice and humiliation is amplified, recreating the sensation of living in a state of chaos and financial uncertainty. Sure, there was a coup taking place and riots in the streets, but this film ignores the more attention-grabbing aspects of this time in history in favor of a more realistic focus on the human aspect of economic downturns. The drama is inherent in the story, so the style is notably restrained, which only adds to the quiet despair that both Beba and Dora experience.
In addition to being an incredibly well-crafted film, it also benefits from incredible performances. While Norma Argentina does an excellent job as the downtrodden, under-appreciated maid, that, despite her mistreatment, still feels obligated to ensure her employer’s wellbeing, it is Norma Aleandro that shines. She is completely believable as a woman who insists on keeping up appearances, even as her world crumbles around her. Though the film is a masterpiece of minimalist storytelling, it is Aleandro’s portrayal of Beba that elevates Cama Adentro above a plethora of other films that chronicle people’s slide into poverty. At times, the film is actually comical. Her adherence to the old way of doing things is absurd in light of her new circumstances, in which she hardly has enough money for food, let alone the luxuries that she sees as basic necessities.
Even if one ignores the ingenious subtlety of this film (which they shouldn’t), or Aleandro’s amazing performance as Beba (which is nearly impossible), they cannot ignore its historical significance. The film is a portrait of a time in Argentina’s history that was both shocking in its severity and unsettling in its proximity to the present. It is often difficult for filmmakers to give an historical account of the recent past without succumbing to their own predispositions or flawed recollections of the events themselves. Thankfully, Cama Adentro completely ignores the politics and the “important” events that made headlines, instead telling a story that is more telling than any news story could hope to be.
At times it is funny and at times incredibly depressing, but as a whole, Cama Adentro is a must watch film and a staple of Argentinian cinema.
Rating: ★★★★½ out of 5
Cama Adentro is available to purchase via Amazon here.