Like last year’s triumphant Roma, a film by Alfonso Cuarón set in Mexico City, Lila Avilés’s debut feature film, The Chambermaid, follows the life of a servant. In Roma, it was a live-in caretaker whose life unfolded on screen; here, it’s hotel maid Eve (Gabriela Cartol), who cleans and resets guest rooms in a high-rise, high luxury property with internal machinations as bustling as the comings and goings of its guests.
Avilés sets her focus on Eve from the beginning, and it’s a tight focus throughout. Though we get glimpses of Eve’s surroundings—the plush guest rooms, the staff cafeteria—the camera is largely concerned with Eve and her day-to-day experience. As such, there isn’t much of a discernible plot to the film; that is, the entire narrative is Eve’s—her daily duties, her dreams and aspirations, her friendships and relationships. The plot is more like a documentary in that way, as if observing every moment of an ordinary life, weaving them together to help us understand one woman’s experience.
Thankfully, Avilés has a knack for such subtle storytelling that belies her inexperience behind the camera (she has just one short film credit prior to The Chambermaid), finding moments in Eve’s day, from her innocent perusal of guests’ belongings to her attendance at a GED class offered by the hotel workers’ union to calls home to her young son and the nanny watching him in her absence, that offer immense insight into the maid’s life. It’s the sort of film that draws you in slowly, only to beautifully earn your attention with unexpectedly poignant moments throughout. Cartol carries a massive responsibility in a film so tightly centered on a single character, and she carries it with aplomb. Avilés’s script allows her the space to explore, through both dialogue and action, the many facets of a woman—mother, employee, friend, student, lover and more—all in the span of the few days we spend with her.
There’s a pervading sense of confinement to The Chambermaid, as the film exists entirely within the small city that is the hotel where Eve works. When she’s not scrubbing a toilet or remaking a bed, Eve eats in the staff cafeteria, showers in the staff locker rooms and turns in her dirty uniform for laundering at the staff cleaners, all housed in the inner basement-like spaces of the building, not a window in sight. When Eve finally heads to bed one night, crashing on one of the staff cots after she misses the last late bus home, the stark juxtaposition of her existence with the guests in the floors above, with their rainfall showers and panoramic windows, is almost too much to handle.
A life like Eve’s, as depicted in Avilés’s touching, thoughtful film, is all too often invisible to many of us. We’re all guilty of rushing past the window washers on a busy street, of not making eye contact with the bus driver who stopped to pick us up, of handing our dishes to the busboy without so much as looking up. In its own quiet, moving way, The Chambermaid reminds us that each of us, whatever role we play in life and at work, has a story that’s multifaceted, layered and, above all, worthy.
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