Good To Be Bad Girls

Purchase thru AmazonprincesasA film that focuses on the lives of prostitutes is likely to be more moving than informative, since—as the cliché goes—it’s the world’s oldest profession. Princesas (in Spanish with English subtitles), then, does not blow the viewer’s mind with any particularly new insights. Rather, it charmingly and quite engagingly tells the story of two contemporary Spanish hookers, one home-grown and one an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

By virtue of their different origins, they fall on different rungs of the sex business pecking order. The local woman, Caye, gets booked by cell phone for jobs, whereas Zulema walks the streets in certain well-known pick-up spots (Manhattan’s far west side, near the Jersey tunnels, used to be one such locale). Our first view of Zulema and her third-world cohorts is through the window of the beauty shop where Caye and her circle hang out. We overhear the racist comments directed at the women in the street by this Greek chorus of watching women.

But despite the economic competition that the illegal outsiders introduce with their lower prices and more outrageous garb, Caye and Zulema become best buddies. What we have in place of a plot is their growing closeness and their revelations to each other of their dreams and needs. If it sounds overly sentimental, it is at times, but the brutality of their profession introduces sufficient dark moments to keep it from Hollywood “whore with the heart of gold” muck such as Pretty Woman.

Still, one wonders what drives certain men to investigate the lives of “fallen women.” The director and screenwriter, Fernando León de Aranoa, has made his two central women extremely sympathetic: Zulema (played by Micaela Nevágez) is gorgeous, sensual, sweet, naïve even, and the mother of a five-year-old son she had to leave with her mother in Santo Domingo so she could earn a living to support him. Her pal Caye (the brilliant Candela Peña) is a little more complicated, seemingly from a middle-class background, feisty yet yearning, a scrapper with large liquid eyes—a sort of updated Giuliette Masina from the classic Fellini film Nights of Caberia. Like Fellini, de Aranoa makes art that mitigates our harsh judgment of such socially taboo women by showing us how basically decent they can be in painfully demoralizing circumstances.

What works in the film is the visual texture, which is both beautiful and gritty—with night and day scenes of the wolf pack of prostitutes, trotting their goods in an endless dance of seduction. In the daytime the scene is harsh, banal; but at night it grows magical—like a dream world of gauzily dressed women on erotic parade.

De Aranoa shoots very few scenes of actual sexual transactions—it is more about being out there and available than what these women actually do in the back seats of cars or behind closed doors. The villain of the piece is a middle-aged, very ordinary-looking bureaucratic type—balding with wire-rimmed glasses—who regularly promises to acquire the right legal papers for Zulema in exchange for sadistic sex and beating. Her vulnerability to his cruel exploitation of her legal situation is one of the not-too-surprising social comments of the film.

For Caye the pain lies in wanting something she has never known, as she puts it, a “nostalgia” for something that hasn’t happened: a man, a boyfriend, who will pick her up after work, the ordinary pleasures of non-puta (whore) existence. She connects briefly with Manuel, a computer nerd, and throws herself both shyly and passionately into the possible relationship, even telling him upfront, when he asks what she does, that she is a puta. He laughs, disbelieving her, and she then plays the game of being an ordinary girlfriend until he discovers her in a restaurant he frequents with his work pals answering a cell call from a client who is part of his crowd. But this devastating moment of revelation is short-circuited because no sense of what occurs between Caye and Manuel after the discovery is provided. An unwillingness to reveal consequences occurs several times in the film, and it’s part of what makes the work less convincing and satisfying than it might be.

Still, it is strangely moving to watch these women trying to make their patched-together and dangerous lives work. It would be an impossible film to make in the U.S., where the movie industry appears compelled to assume polarized moral positions that limit our vision of reality. Either it would have to be a stark, ugly documentary where all the women ultimately suffer and pay a high price for their chosen profession, or it would likely fall into some romantic flim-flam of the Julia Roberts variety. Hookers in our films are rarely recognizable human beings with complicated motivation (although there was the great Jane Fonda film Klute back in 1971).

So, thank you, de Aranoa , for bringing us the strutting ladies of the night in the back streets of contemporary Madrid, counting their money and selling their wares, with or without legal papers, paying for unseen children or future breast implants, in an endless “down payment on sadness” (a phrase of Caye’s). If we start to look at the sex industry worldwide, we become aware just how many untold stories are out there, and film would seem to be the perfect medium for bringing such stories to light.- Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

Victoria Sullivan

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