Film Review: Everything Else

Natalia Almada’s study of a career civil servant suffering a late-life crisis works best when it plumbs the connections between bureaucracy and violence.
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After helming several feature-length documentaries that were broadcast as part of the “POV” series on PBS, Natalia Almada makes her fiction film debut with Everything Else. Not surprisingly, Almada brings the observational eye of a documentarian to this story of a career civil servant suffering something like a late-life crisis. This is especially evident in the way Almada allows the interactions between Doña Flor (Adriana Barraza) and her clientele to play out in long unbroken scenes that approximate real time.

Doña Flor’s existence is defined by the routines and repetitions that structure her workday, lending it a rhythm as ineluctable as the metronomic blinking of the streetlight outside her bedroom window, which presides over her sleepless nights. Almada frames these frequent reiterations of visual detail in geometrically balanced compositions that suggest the influence of Chantal Akerman’s structuralist/feminist masterwork Jeanne Dielman. Everything Else also bears similarities in both theme and style to the recent film Hannah starring Charlotte Rampling. You could almost say these films inaugurate a new subgenre: Lonely older women taking the subway.

For the first part of the film, Doña Flor remains a closed book. To get any sense of her attitudes toward her surroundings, viewers must constantly glean inferences from the smallest of gestures: the tilt of a head, the length of an unblinking stare. Almada suggests her indifference to the harsh conditions of the outside world by juxtaposing her comfortable domestic situation against harrowing TV newscasts about poverty and violence against women that play in the background. Nor is Doña Flor particularly concerned with the plight of the applicants at her voter ID department, dismissing all hopes for exemption from the rules with the flat declaration: “The requirements are clearly stated on that sign.”

Hannah Arendt wrote about the insidious link between bureaucracy and violence. In Everything Else, that violence is always lurking somewhere, via news broadcasts, posters for missing women, a bit of street performance that veers dangerously into larceny. For her part, Doña Flor’s position of authority certainly allows her to exert power over her clientele, to grant or deny their claims with the press of a stamp. This is never more apparent than in her exchange with an irate applicant (played by Alejandro de Icaza, the film’s sound designer) who just can’t be bothered to stay off his cellphone for the length of the interview. We’re left with the clear sense that Doña Flor manufactures a minor discrepancy in his form just to send him away disgruntled.

It’s telling that, after this encounter, she takes out her compact to retouch her lipstick. This often repeated gesture is wonderfully polyvalent: It can be read as an act of narcissistic self-absorption, or the reinforcement of a sort of feminine armor with which she can face the rest of the world. The latter notion is only reinforced by frequent shots that isolate Doña Flor against the crush of commuters in a subway car. Even when she’s one-on-one with her clients, there’s the sense that neither truly sees the other, that there’s a functional barrier of invisibility between them. This is doubly ironic when you stop to consider that her job entails confirming the identification of registered voters.

But it would be quite difficult to sustain this kind of study of existential stasis and withdrawal over the course of a feature-length film. (Even in Jeanne Dielman, after all, somebody gets stabbed in the end.) And so something must inevitably happen. Almada makes the rookie mistake of pivoting her film on the death of a beloved pet, which acts as the hinge that opens Doña Flor to life’s rich pageant—in the form of swimming lessons. Because we’re already accustomed to closely reading the film, the thematic juxtapositions Almada deploys throughout the second half of the film run the risk of becoming a bit risible. Ultimately, it takes the viewer almost 100 minutes to arrive at a point that the novelist E.M. Forster summed up with two choice words: Only connect.

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