Review by Diana Cheng
AAP film & arts writer
Lila Avilés was a theatre actress and stage director before turning to filmmaking. Her repertoire includes also directing operas by Mozart and Händel.
Putting her achievements in these other art forms into perspective then, her debut feature “The Chambermaid” is a minimal expression of a very mundane subject. But that’s exactly what makes this film unusual.
Avilés is in competition for the New Directors Prize at the 62nd San Francisco International Film Festival coming up April 10-23.
Last year, Avilés’s fellow countryman, director Alfonso Cuarón, won three Oscars for “Roma,” drawing awareness to the working class in Mexico with his protagonist, housemaid Cleo, who works for an affluent family in Mexico City. Avilés’s “The Chambermaid” similarly evokes empathy with its focus on a hotel chambermaid, Eve (Gabriela Cartol), as the camera follows her doing her chores, and filling some unexpected requests from guests. But unlike “Roma,” “The Chambermaid” is shot like a docudrama, the realism and restraint of emotions reveal the harsh reality of the powerless, working poor and the disparity between the haves and have-nots.
A young, single mom with a four-year-old, Eve has to get someone to look after her son so she can come out to work at the upscale hotel in Mexico City. She misses him especially when she needs to work overtime and won’t make it home before his bedtime. She’d line up to make a phone call during her break to talk to her son. Avilés makes such a seemingly mundane act a moving moment.
Eve is a conscientious worker and follows rules carefully. She puts her hope in being able to move to an upper floor with better rooms. The camera often tracks her observing the books of hotel guests’, and noticing the elevator operator reading on the job. Her aspiration is revealed when we see her attending the GED preparation class offered by the hotel. Her instructor gives her a book to read, in which she is totally absorbed. Coincidentally, the book is about flying higher away from the mundane, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”.
The whole film is shot inside the hotel. Avilés’s camera is a quiet vehicle shadowing Eve. Sometimes it is stationary, characters go in and out of the frame; sometimes it follows the action. But at all times, it captures honestly. Avilés saturates with greyish blue, the color of hotel staff uniform, as well, bringing out the notion of uniformity and dullness. However, we see the individuality of the characters. Eve’s foil is Minitoy (Teresa Sanchez), whose friendship is questionable. The hotel is a microcosm of society; Eve is a minion trying to live a better life.
Eve has her eyes on a red dress in the lost and found; if no one comes to claim after a certain time, she is on top of the list for it. Avilés’s camera captures the red among the monochrome of grey and white, a vibrant spot of life and hope. The poignant ending brings Eve and the viewers back to reality. No red dress can substitute real change.
Showtimes for “The Chambermaid” at SFFILM is April 19 and 21. CLICK HERE to SFFILM’s website to browse the full program.