Loath as one is to make even a glancing comparison, it’s hard not to think of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” for at least one short scene in “La Mami”: The camera observes calmly as a tiled floor is mopped by a pair of caretakers, sudsy water splashing across the surface in scalloped waves, only to be pulled back with grimy residue. The mop-wielders this time are male, unseen but for their shoes. Indeed, men’s faces are glimpsed only sporadically and fleetingly in Laura Herrero Garvin’s exquisite documentary, but this isn’t a neat case of gender table-turning: The women who vibrantly populate “La Mami” have no less arduous and dispiriting a job to do. Dancers and hostesses in Mexico City’s famous Cabaret Barba Azul nightclub, they are ostensibly self-employed, but remain beholden to the whims and wallets of the men they entertain.
One woman, at least, doesn’t dance. Grey-haired, pouchily cardigan-clad and almost perennially stead, Doña Olga is the “Mami” of the title: the custodian of the ladies’ dressing room, but rather more crucially, the guardian of the ladies themselves. A jaded but quietly sympathetic confidante, as quick with brisk maternal advice as she is with a fresh roll of toilet paper, she’s been through everything they have and more. The intimate but unsentimental rapport between Mami and her charges — one anxious new arrival in particular — sets the tone for Herrero Garvin’s purely and patiently observational film, which unfolds mostly in the scuffed, fluorescent-lit confines of the dressing room, but never feels airless or exercise-like. “La Mami’s” lively, lived-in subject matter and grounded feminist charge should win it admirers and buyers alike on the festival circuit following its premiere in IDFA’s main competition.
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“The men here are good for two things,” Mami counsels an exasperated dancer before she heads back onto the floor. “They’re good for nothing, and they’re good for money.” It’s the kind of devastating one-liner you can imagine having been delivered by Jennifer Lopez’s fur-draped mama bear in “Hustlers,” and while Mami wouldn’t work her way quite so lithely around a stripper’s pole, the comparison is apt enough. There’s nothing illegal afoot here, but like the fairweather sisterhood of Lorene Scafaria’s rags-to-riches-and-back drama, the women of Cabaret Barba Azul view and use men as a faceless means to an economic end, one eased and quickened by alcohol. (They’re referred to only be the most generic of descriptors: “the fat one,” “the black one,” and so on.) For shy Carmen, that end is more urgent than most: She needs to save 27,000 pesos for her adult son’s cancer treatment, and dancing, drinking and flirting with the club’s clientele is the only work available to her.
Mami is quick to take the nervous newcomer under her no-nonsense wing, though Carmen isn’t coddled. In short order, her name is changed to Priscilla (“Don’t expose your name, it’s too pretty to be known,” the women are advised) and she’s taught the tricks of the trade — most notably and specifically, how to mask your all-nighter tequila breath ahead of a morning appointment with your son’s cancer doctor. In the film’s most tensely electric scene, Herrero Garvin (who serves as her own supple cinematographer) follows the freshly made-up “Priscilla” from dressing room to dancefloor for her first night on the job. The difference is, well, day and night: The safe space of ladies’ room upstairs is all pale, overlit beige, while the blaring salsa and lurid, saturated petrol hues of the club proper couldn’t feel more like a descent into Hell if there were flames painted on the wall. Oh, look closer: there are.
Herrero’s entirely invisible approach — there is no narration, nor any acknowledgement of the camera at any point from the subjects — maintains a tactfully respectful distance from women who hardly want for the scrutiny of others. Yet the consistent, empathetic intensity of the film’s female gaze, its keen, curious eye for faces, bodies and costume, reveals incremental change with no great ceremony: It’s not long before Carmen/Priscilla’s face adjusts from the petrified, makeup-glazed rictus of that first night on the floor to the assured, eyes-ahead look of a woman who means business and nothing more.
That’s not to say it’s a simple matter of empowerment. Amid its textured, occasionally conflict-scarred portrait of female community, “La Mami” is rife with sharp, tacit socioeconomic criticism of an unequal, patriarchal society in which making joyless business out of pleasure is the best hope many women have. Mami herself, meanwhile, may be the film’s kindly, quick-tongued heroine, but she’s also a weary-walking cautionary tale to the rest — a reminder that once your professional dancing and drinking days are over, you either get out of the club or you’ll be cleaning the toilets. “It’s about the friendships you make in bathrooms,” one young woman idealistically trills; like Mami, this wise, ruefully beautiful documentary knows it’s rather more complicated than that.