Bulbul Can Sing (2018), Indian director Rima Das’s third feature, is the sort of film that cloaks its artistry in a ragged naturalism, and for much of its length I thought the raggedness was too high a price to pay. Set in Das’s home state of Assam, the film centers on three school friends whose problems and aspirations are not so urgent that they distract us from Das’s documentation of village life and Assam’s green landscapes. Das’s eye for terrain and atmosphere, aided by a raw soundtrack that sacrifices polish for immediacy, is often stunning; and the film benefits from putting itself at the mercy of natural and social phenomena, as in a remarkable sequence of a torrential rainstorm in Assam’s open fields, with the protagonists sharing long-shot compositions with villagers who may have wandered into the background unwittingly. On the minus side, the actors tend either to motormouth their way through lightning rounds of improvisation or to hit plot points without much adornment. The film has an odd way of simulating drama by slowing its rhythms or by letting the actors chew the scenery, but it doesn’t really do drama: scenes and events follow one another like boxcars, without a sense of development.
Suddenly, two-thirds of the way through the film, Das turns this disconnection to her advantage with a series of plot twists that are the more unnerving for arriving unannounced, or rather for the lack of an announcement system. Bulbul continues to reap the benefits of its fragmented realism—for instance, with a powerful image of a funeral pyre almost hidden in deep background while villagers converse in foreground—and also to suffer from its half-hearted commitment to touching all the usual storytelling bases. But all is forgiven at the visually overwhelming final scene, a mother-daughter beach outing, in which Bulbul’s mother strikes just the right final note by gently urging the stricken girl to resume her former regime of hair care. The beautiful ocean landscape is enhanced by a real rainbow that mother and daughter point to: clearly fate smiles on the filmmaker who does not shield herself from the vicissitudes of the world. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the films of Govindan Aravindan, but Das’s approach reminded me a bit of his rough-edged lyricism.
Like Bulbul, Lila Avilés’s The Chambermaid had its world premiere at TIFF. The resemblance ends there: The Chambermaid, Avilés’s feature debut, is as formally confident and technically polished as Bulbul is raw and untutored. Avilés spends the entire film behind the scenes of a fancy Mexico City hotel, tracking the work life of a young, energetic hotel maid named Eve (the wonderful Gabriela Cartol), who dispatches her duties with Hawksian efficiency. The film’s undercurrent of droll humor is the result of Avilés filming the hotel as if it were the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with portentous static compositions, fixed focal planes that the characters wander into and out of, and constricted fields of vision that do not accommodate to the characters’ movements. The cheerful Eve alternates between vigorous work and frequent moments of revery, and the film takes its fast-slow-fast rhythm from her pace as it cycles comically through the same set of locations. The hotel guests are aliens in this world, and the workers’ lack of involvement in the guests’ crises adds a layer of absurdism to the proceedings. As consummate and expressive a stylist as she is, Avilés takes the film in a questionable direction in its last quarter, as Eve’s aspirations for a life beyond the hotel begin to sever her connections to reality and decrease her value to her employers. The somewhat sentimental tone of pessimism that the film adopts on Eve’s behalf seems to emanate from a different world than the plucky chambermaid of the earlier scenes inhabited. Still, Avilés is an exciting find.