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Review: Mexican drama ‘The Chambermaid’ brims with empathy and life

Gabriela Cartol in a scene from “The Chambermaid.” Credit: Kino Lorber
Gabriela Cartol in the movie “The Chambermaid.”
(Kino Lorber)

Luxury hotel working is not luxury hotel living, yet for young single mother Eve (Gabriela Cartol), the title character of Lila Avilés’ sturdy, humane portrait of everyday wage stress, “The Chambermaid,” the amount of time spent at her taxing job is tantamount to a necessary residency, albeit one far removed from the expensive comforts she scrubs, presses and tidies every day.

If Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón’s celebrated personal “Roma” deployed nostalgic, gratitude-driven noticing to spotlight the churning dignity of one family’s indispensable domestic worker, actor-turned-director Aviles’ lower-key glimpse — based partly on her observations of chambermaids at Mexico City’s InterContinental Presidente, where it’s set — is more like a quiet curtain-peeler on a hidden now. It’s what the world looks like when you’re required to go through life unseen, except by the superiors who hold your well being in their hands.

For Eve, played with a compelling lived-in simplicity by Cartol, the high-toned tower where she cleans is a window into the world of blasé privilege when handling guests’ curious detritus or meeting their whims. One rich, chatty Argentine wife and mother asks if she’ll watch her baby for a few minutes every day while she showers, hinting at a potential nanny job back in Buenos Aires. Another VIP guest routinely demands extra amenities. What goes unspoken is a sense of serving without incident, even if the requests aren’t always by the book, and Eve knows where that line is: She promptly calls in left-behind items, knowing that patience might put an unclaimed red dress in her hands after a suitable waiting period.

But when she’s out of the guests’ sight, her existence is a clanging underground warren populated by gray-uniformed cogs like her just trying to get through their shifts. Connecting the two worlds is Eve’s belief that she can better her circumstance: When a job opens up on the coveted 42nd floor of executive suites, she sees her complaint-free record as a surefire step in securing a gig that will finally allow her to afford the sitter who’s looking after her 4-year-old Ruben while Eve works.

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When Eve squeezes in a phone call to check up on her son, Avilés doesn’t cross-cut to what Eve is missing — that expected shot of a doe-eyed moppet. Rather, the camera stays on Cartol, stressing how oppressive a hermetically sealed workplace is to someone in Eve’s situation. It’s an unsentimental approach that’s a hallmark of the overall look first-time feature director Avilés and cinematographer Carlos Rossini are after: They prefer a still image in which figures move in and out, even if heads leave the top of the frame — the effect cements the feeling of a fixed interior universe in which there’s little room to maneuver, and disappearing is as simple as moving just a little bit.

But when needed, Cartol makes the most of her time alone in the frame. You’d be forgiven for thinking Avilés used a nonprofessional — her unforced authenticity, whether doing her job or inviting us into her mind during a close-up, is that effective. Some of the other workers are real-life hotel employees, and Avilés’ way with blending the two is as artful as her minimalist yet smoothly determined direction. It may feel as if these are loosely structured vignettes, but there’s an accumulation at work — the steady drip of dimensionality that the best movies about people at their jobs know how to turn into a complete picture.

“The Chambermaid” is empathy cinema but hardly miserablist in its shape. There are touches of wry humor, as when a smitten window washer tries to flirt with Eve, and when she allows a friendship to form with boisterous colleague Minitoy (Teresa Sánchez), our hopes are triggered that she’ll find some measure of solace in this workplace connection, between the trashed rooms, agitated breaks and overall wait for something better. In the end, “The Chambermaid” is the kind of service industry character study that in these compassion-challenged times performs its own dutiful service.

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‘The Chambermaid’

In Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Starts July 5, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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