AFI Fest Review: The Chambermaid
Lila Avilés’ feature film debut is a melancholy tale of hard work and perseverance that makes us question the nature of a system based on merit.
Economies run on the faces of the invisible. Food is delivered to stores by people we don’t know, and even if we do see the people who try to make our lives easier, there’s an air expectation that “you’re here to do something for me.” This mentality is at the foundation of Lila Avilés’ feature film debut, The Chambermaid. Her examination of the life of a Mexican maid trying to get by is a no-frills look at someone most people overlook. Aviles confronts how we willingly ignore people and ultimately what that does to those who get ignored.
Eve (Gabriela Cartol) is one of many maids who works at a luxurious hotel in Mexico City. She spends her days cleaning up after people, occasionally acting as a nanny for an affluent Brazilian woman, and trying to squeeze in time to talk to her own son on the phone. The Chambermaid is an un-unique story told in a unique way. This isn’t to say the story isn’t unique because it’s about a maid, but that Eve is just like us. She’s a woman trying to make a living and it is only the stigma around her job that creates the unspoken tension within the story. As we watch Eve excuse herself around hotel guests or try to blend into the wall as she’s making phone calls, the intent is to show us these women (and men) are told to act as the living embodiment of houseplants.
Watching Eve go from room-to-room is punctuated by a series of plots she gets involved in. One, involving a Brazilian woman named Rumi and her baby, reminds Eve of what she’s missing out on. She’s going from working to care for her own child, who she never sees, to caring for a child at her work. At one point this woman offers her a chance to better her circumstances, but the crushing disappointment of what happens only fuels Eve’s ambivalence to what she’s doing.
Newcomer Cartol is a revelation. The whole movie lives and breathes on her shoulders, yet Cartol portrays all the facets of Eve’s personality with a nature that’s lived-in. She’s quiet, but it’s impossible not to see her, as both as a character and as a human. There’s an inner light bursting to break free, yet it’s evident it’s buried under decades of struggle.
The young woman attempts to get her GED and even that comes with issues. She can’t engage with the class or a woman who wants to be her friend because Eve is so committed to being a good girl, well-behaved enough to own a red dress left in lost and found, or good enough to transcend to the coveted 42nd floor where the rooms are better. Life is literally a hotel, with Eve scrambling to move up the ladder and finding herself woefully unequipped by the forces that be.
Aviles is uncompromising in her vision, following Eve in a way that feels repetitive, and it should be. Eve’s life isn’t exciting. She does the same thing, every day, just in a different order. Aviles proves that, unlike television, there aren’t hidden intrigues or fun hijinks. For Eve, this is her life, and it’s wrong that it must dominate it 24/7.
With all our talk about Mexico at the moment, The Chambermaid is a vital piece of history. Eve’s daily life is no different from the countless Latinos living here and in Mexico, nor is it different from the lives of any average blue-collar worker.
Lila Avilés’ film may be dull at times, but that’s only to show that life itself is, as Jane Austen said, a “quick succession” of “busy nothings.”