Documentary-maker Natalia Almada turns her rigorously intellectual eye towards fiction with “Everything Else,” a detail-oriented study of an isolated, middle-aged female bureaucrat whose numbed existence ever-so-slowly awakens to the promise of human contact. Though the concept of the gendered gaze can be over-pushed in film theory circles, in this case there’s no mistaking Almada’s privileging of a woman’s perspective, with its sympathetic non-judgmental stance and sense of female solidarity. Just as with her documentaries (“El velador,” “El General”), the director uses a meticulously measured, observational catalogue of fixed shots which here fleshes out her protagonist’s rigidity and loneliness, well-played with blunted despair by Adriana Barraza (“Babel”). Festivals are already lining up, though the film’s austerity largely precludes wider play.
Doña Flor (Barraza) lives a no-frills life reflected in her choice of clothes: beige or brown. She frequently adjusts her hair, which, along with nail polish and a simple application of lipstick, are the only nods to a distant individuality, a remnant, perhaps, of a time when she had more than a professional interaction with the people around her. She’s a factotum in the nondescript office where Mexicans get their voter ID cards: it’s likely more waiting room than desk space, but Almada keeps the focus so tight that the room’s parameters are never clear. In fact, for the first quarter, viewers imagine Flor’s desk to be in a sort of cubicle, and only when the mostly frontal camera unexpectedly shifts to a side view do we see that her work space is in an open area next to others, with nothing to divide them.
Flor is a stickler for rules. Her mechanical processing of documents leaves zero warmth for the applicants, whose forms she rejects for the slightest infringement of procedure. Her life is one of emotionless routine, following a joyless pattern from her drab apartment, where the TV news’ litany of woes is mere background noise, to the crowded metro and on to her thankless job. Her one destination apart from this triad is a community pool, where she watches the swimmers but never participates. In these early scenes, Almada uses an inordinate number of shots from floor level, with the visuals going no higher than Flor’s calves, as if the woman’s chunky black heels and commonplace pantyhose say as much about her character as her face. Flor’s sole bond is with her cat Manuelito (whose realm is naturally floor level), and only the feline’s presence brings out a playful affection which otherwise is buried deep. Then one day the cat dies.
Almada doesn’t use the feline’s death as an excuse to suddenly shift tone; the change in Flor is barely perceptible, even though the viewer starts paying extra close attention to any alteration in the character’s attitude or routine. She’s so shut down anyway, so ground down by isolation and the deadening effect of the bureaucratic machine she works for, that Manuelito’s absence, at first, doesn’t leave a mark on Flor’s outward manner. Perhaps in the vacuum created by the loss of her one emotional attachment, she’s slightly more willing to smile at a client; otherwise, the only noticeable change is that she’s more often at the pool, and while she’s not yet going in the water, she’s becoming a familiar presence to the other women who regularly spend time there.
As a title, “Everything Else” is rather cryptic: What exactly is this “else”? As it is, Almada includes quite a lot that seems detached from Flor’s life, such as a thieving fire eater and his son at a traffic light, or dance hall hostesses at a cheap nightclub. Since the director’s intent is to show her protagonist’s limited existence as symptomatic of a massive flaw in Mexican society, these seemingly disconnected scenes should be considered as elements making up the bigger picture, along with the blind beggars in the metro and disturbing TV reports of poverty, hunger, and violence against women. In reality, “Everything Else” is everything: all that creates a world where people, especially women, are demoralized and impoverished, made to feel disassociated from the civil society in which they’re meant to participate.
All this comes through, yet the film also feels overly indebted to theory. (In the press notes, the Director’s Statement quotes from Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, and Lenin, which gives some idea of where Almada is coming from.) The camera is as trapped in this intellectual severity as Flor herself, and the only time it moves is when she’s on a conveyance, whether escalator, metro, or taxi. Despite this rigidity, Almada still manages to make the film human in the way she accords portrait-like vignettes to the people applying for IDs, and the silent solidarity between women, whether packed tight in the women and children cars of the metro, or in the safe space of the pool changing rooms.