The Ariels are Mexico’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, and not only did La Camarista win as best first film this year, but in the past few months it’s picked up prizes in festivals in San Francisco, Portland, Palm Springs, Morelia, Marrakesh and Havana. It was showing in New York recently, and opened here in Mexico City a few weeks ago. It’s one of those films that I’m afraid will disappear without much fanfare, a shame because it’s beautiful and brilliantly executed.
The story of a chambermaid at a luxury hotel in Mexico City, in a clear-eyed but understated style La Camarista portrays the breach between the privileged and the disadvantaged here. The movie is entirely set in the hotel, and by the end it feels claustrophobic. The director, Lila Avilés, who also collaborated on the screenplay, illustrates the protagonist’s hardships in any number of ways, without rubbing our noses in it or reveling in “poverty porn.” If you are someone who stays in hotels when you travel, I venture to guess you will never see the women who clean your rooms as anonymous figures again.
It’s tricky to pit one film against another but La Camarista struck me as everything that Roma could have been but wasn’t. Although I realize it’s unpopular to express misgivings about Roma, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Ever since I got to Mexico City in 1990, various well-to-do people (I’ve heard them referred to as “whitexicans” recently) have told me how little I understand the dynamic between them and their maids; in fact, they love each other and they’re one big happy family. Let’s just say that Roma struck me as a fulfillment of that fantasy. Although it’s nominally about the life of a cleaning woman, the character is a passive tabula rasa that the privileged people who employ her (and the audience) can conveniently interpret in the way that reflects them in the best light. My guess is that cleaning women in Mexico City would have a substantially different story to tell than the one shown in Roma.
Meanwhile, in La Camarista, you get a bird’s eye view of the chambermaid’s daily struggles and frustrations, and her interaction with her colleagues, her supervisors, and the hotel guests who ask her for special favors. It’s still at the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City, and if it’s playing anywhere near you, don’t miss it. It’s too bad that such a worthy movie doesn’t have Netflix backing it the way they got behind Roma.