Lila Avilés’ The Chambermaid (La Camarista) is a riveting debut film that chronicles the everyday life of a maid who works in a luxurious Mexico City hotel. Premiering at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, it was well-received by audiences and critics alike and established Avilés as a director to watch. Although still honing her craft, she demonstrates the skill of someone beyond her years and deserves more attention.
Gabriela Cartol is charismatic as Eve, the protagonist of The Chambermaid, and brings a genuine believability to the role. Under Avilés’ lens, there is a certain focus on the mundane tasks the character endures every day. The film opens with Eve cleaning one of the rooms on her designated floor. Each movement she makes is calculated, with an emphasis on the repetition of her tasks. She takes off the bedspread, she scrubs toilets, she replaces amenities. She constantly interacts with the revolving door of guests she serves and her fellow hotel employees.
In The Chambermaid, Eve exists in a sort of purgatory, remaining at the hotel, never leaving to go home until the end. She always seems to be close to accomplishing something new, but then life gets in the way. She attempts to obtain her GED, she desires to work on a higher floor, and she is constantly trying to leave so she can go home to her son. The film highlights the plight of the women that hide in the shadows, those that don’t exist in the general population’s consciousness. Avilés humanizes these women and has created a quiet but powerful heroine in Eve.
Around the same time The Chambermaid premiered, another film in the same vein made its debut at the Venice Film Festival: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Set in Mexico City in 1971, Roma is a highly personal film for Cuarón, honoring the woman that raised him, his live-in nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez. Since its premiere, Roma has garnered critical praise and is on the fast track to being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Lead actress Yalitza Aparicio has been a name uttered from the industry’s lips, and she has immediately become an actress to watch. Roma is her first and only film.
Like Cartol’s Eve, Aparicio’s Cleo is an understated but strong heroine. Both women are stoic, only expressing emotional pain in the most extreme circumstances. Both power quietly through their trials and tribulations, continuing to serve their employers. The main difference between Eve and Cleo is that Cleo is created from Cuarón’s filtered memories and Eve is created from the experiences of an external source of inspiration. Inspired by Sophia Calle’s book “The Hotel,” Avilés studied maids and their lives for many years in order to make The Chambermaid.
In Cuarón’s lens, Cleo appears almost saint-like and is viewed with a childlike wonder. In Avilés’ lens, Eve is resilient but shown in a more flawed light. She shows signs of exhaustion, sexual desire, and even anger at points. In Roma, Cuarón has carefully plucked aspects of Cleo’s personality to put on display, choosing the best pieces to fit the film’s narrative. With the passage of time, what does Cuarón remember the most about Libo, the inspiration for the character? She never shows anger, and her thoughts are few. She remains by her employers’ side, her own family rarely mentioned. Both films showcase the differences between social class and race in Mexico, but it’s a lot more obvious in Roma, which serves as an autobiographical piece, drawing from Cuarón’s middle-class, white childhood.
While the films are from a male and a female director at very different stages in their careers, in hindsight they aren’t too different. Both pay homage to the working-class women that make up the backbone of Mexican society (and society as a whole). Additionally, each film is more a collection of experiences rather than a plot with a solid conflict and resolution. Both Roma and The Chambermaid are extremely intimate, focusing on pure emotion as opposed to creating something that can be solved within a two-hour time frame.
Both films have their merits and are considered masterpieces by critics and audiences alike. However, Roma has gained more attention due to its director and distributor. Over the past couple of decades, Cuarón has established himself as an auteur and is one of the most celebrated working directors today. His reputation is well-deserved, as he is the artist behind critically acclaimed films such as Gravity, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and A Little Princess (the latter two are both personal favorites of mine).
Due to the artistic, personal nature of Roma, Netflix was forced to change its distribution strategy. Over the years, the company has become a haven for creatives to make films that wouldn’t be greenlit anywhere else. With its streaming format, the majority of its films have foregone theatrical release but have found massive audiences across the globe. Roma, however, was part of a major push to change that. Like The Chambermaid and many films of its caliber, Roma is a film that should be experienced in theaters. Combine Netflix’s massive marketing budget, industry influence, and the reputation of Cuarón, and you can’t help but notice that there’s an overwhelming difference in the film’s attention.
On IMDb, The Chambermaid currently holds a 7.2 score (from 51 users) and only nine reviews from critics. Meanwhile, Roma currently holds an 8.6 score (from 2,217 users) on the site, which features links to reviews from 84 critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the results are similar. The Chambermaid has a perfect score but significantly fewer reviews (nine), especially from big-name publications, than Roma, which is 99% fresh (from 135 reviews). Why do you think that is? It’s something to consider. At this year’s AFI Fest, both films were showcased, yet Roma drew significantly different crowds than The Chambermaid.
Despite their similarities (and differences), both films are equally worth seeing and are each an important contribution to Mexican cinema. Yet one of them is receiving more notice and consideration. If you went into each film blindly, how would you feel about them then? When it comes to films from talented filmmakers, does hype and the reputation of the filmmaker alter your perception? Should it affect such an imbalance of recognition?
See Roma, for sure. But don’t miss out on The Chambermaid if you have the chance to see it. It’s thought-provoking, funny, and heartbreaking at the same time.