Film Fest 919: It’s a unique experience to watch a film set entirely within a hotel while actually staying at one. That’s the case here at Film Fest 919 down in Chapel Hill, where we’re covering the second annual festival. One can’t help but watch “The Chambermaid” and think about the men and women employed at the hotel they’re staying at. Regardless of that, this submission by Mexico for the Best International Feature Oscar urges you to be sympathetic. While the tightly focused character study yields stronger dividends earlier on in its story, the flick on the whole manages to present a character worth caring about.
“The Chambermaid” is at its best and worst when focusing on the routines of hotel staff. At first, it’s compelling and specific. Later on, it seems to be taking the place of a full narrative, but by then you’re invested enough to not mind all that much. The simple story prevents the flick from soaring higher, but a strong lead performance and a knack for details keeps it more than afloat. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” this is not, but it never wants to it be like that, either.
Taking place entirely within one of Mexico City’s most luxurious hotels, the film is a look at the day to day experiences of its staff. Specifically, chambermaid Eve (Gabriela Cartol), who goes about her days with a quiet dedication. No matter how her co-workers treat her, or even the guests, she’s determined to do a good job. Sometimes, this leads to bonding and investments in the lives of these people. Other times, it sets her up for disappointment. Then, she does it again the very next day.
As Eve balances the growing monotony of her work with the prospects for a better life, she finds herself noticing her surroundings more and more. Whether it’s the fellow staff, the guests at the hotel, or the building itself, they weigh on her more and more. When a decision comes down about a promotion, she’s faced with a potential change, one that will not just benefit her, but her family as well.
Gabriela Cartol is a big reason why this works. The way she imbues the character with emotions that almost never are let out is worth the price of admission alone. When she breaks the stoic facade, it’s either because a guest has been especially nice or rude to her, or when she finally gets her big news. The few looks at her personal life, including a very unexpected act in front of a window, help to inform who she is outside of work. Cartol expresses it all with simplicity, but never in a simple way.
Filmmaker Lila Avilés, along with co-writer Juan Márquez, crafts a script without a lot of action. Day to day work responsibilities make up the vast majority of the events. So, while Avilés and Márquez formed the skeleton on the page, it’s the former who finds a visual style to it all. There’s a simplicity to the direction, which helps give it all a verite feel.
“The Chambermaid” has small scale aspirations. It seeks to tell a simple tale and tell it well. While it never comes to some grand point, the realization of a human being too few people pay attention to is worth praising. Whether Oscar shortlists this title for Best International Feature or not remains to be seen, but as a Film Fest 919 entry, it has more than its fair share of merit. This isn’t a four star luxury resort, to use a tacky metaphor, but it is a place where you can safely rest your head.