Mexican actress Julieta Ortiz as an undocumented Salvadoran maid lights up Nancy Savoca’s “Dirt,” an audience-grabber as tightly condensed and emotionally resonant as its title. The flip side of “Maid in Manhattan,” Savoca’s zilch-budget, DV-lensed “kitchen sinker” owes nothing to Cinderella and even less to Jennifer Lopez-esque mystique (though pic boasts sumptuous old-money Gotham interiors that Hollywood set designers would kill for). Despite nitty-grittiness, film zings along with an energy, determination and spirit that are anything but depressing. With proper handling, Showtime has a strong shot at arthouse/indie play before as-yet unspecified cable run.
“Dirt” is more accessible and tonally uniform than Savoca’s earlier deliberately genre-clashed oeuvre. Unlike Ken Loach with “Bread and Roses” or Stephen Frears with “Dirty Pretty Things,” Savoca milks closeness with her heroine. The camera gloms on to Ortiz from the very first image and basically never leaves her side. At the same time, her daily travails effortlessly illuminate an entire underclass of illegal immigrants scrambling for survival.
Dolores is fired from a job she has held for nine years because her Hispanic boss, Mrs. Ortega, has decided to run for Congress on an anti-illegal alien platform. Dolores’ fellow maintenance workers in the upper-crust building one-up each other telling stories of coming to America, and, as Dolores gets progressively drunker, their tales of harrowing stowaway arrivals, stretching back to 1943 Palermo, fade in and out of her consciousness.
Dolores lives in Queens with her sullen teenage son Rudy (Jon Budinoff), and her laid-back handsome husband Rodolfo (Ignacio Guadalupe), who offsets Dolores’ anxious work ethic with a love of life and a love of her. Every penny the couple saves goes toward constructing their dream house back in El Salvador.
In the scenes of Dolores at work, the film really comes alive. Like a neo-realist spin on “Nutcracker” or on “Toy Story,” pic sets up an invisibility principle so that when the official inhabitants of the luxury condos have left the premises, the hidden life takes over. Savoca wisely crafts her DV opus through intense close shots.
Dolores is first glimpsed going against the grain, threading her way through crowds milling in the other direction. This narrowing of focus seems appropriate for the dingy basement corridors, freight elevators or laundry rooms, but it comes as a shock when Dolores is likewise depicted confidently maneuvering through the elegant spaciousness of the Ortegas’ opulent flat as if she owned the place.
Yet this is no J. Lo fantasy. If Dolores occasionally lunches off china and crystal to the strains of Scarlatti, the music seamlessly segues to later endless cleaning chores. Savoca gives the nicest gringa in the film a nightmare of a layout, with so many hundreds of knickknacks and little framed images that Dolores needs Polaroid documentation, every time she dusts, in order to accurately put back the objects in their designated configurations.
For Savoca, it is Dolores’ work that legitimizes her ownership of the frame and finally empowers her as a person, whether or not the outside world ever recognizes her worth.
Thesping is uniformly effective, Guadalupe as the lovable Rodolfo granting rare sweetness and maturity to the nice-guy role, and Yvette Mercedes as Dolores’ laundry-room confidante standing in well for a city full of supportive, opinionated co-workers.
Lisa Leone’s superlative DV lensing masterfully maps out the relationship of Dolores to her surroundings, be they the sparse trappings of genteel poverty or the riotous promiscuity of Latin color (the bright blue dream house in El Salvador as lush, in its way, as the millionaire penthouses).