Film-Forward Review: [PRINCESAS]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Candela Peña as Caye (left) & 
Micaela Nevárez as Zulema
Photo: Teresa Isasi/IFC First Take

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Directed & Written by: Fernando León de Aranoa.
Produced by: Fernando León de Aranoa & Jaume Roures.
Director of Photography: Ramiro Civita.
Edited by: Nacho Ruiz Capillas.
Music by: Alfonso de Vilallonga & Manu Chao.
Released by: IFC First Take.
Language: Spanish with English Subtitles.
Country of Origin: Spain. 114 Minutes. Not Rated.
With: Candela Peña, Micaela Nevárez, Antonio Durán & Luis Callejo.

Caye (Candela Peña) realizes she isn’t getting any younger. Her goal is to save her carefully counted earnings for breast implants – “Men like big tits.” She pastes pictures of her face on catalog models to pick the best size for increasing business. (It is not clear how she ended up as a prostitute.) Weekly, she endures dinners with her middle-class family, including her depressed mother, who so refuses to accept her husband’s death three years earlier that she sends herself gifts in the hope they could be from him. Ironically, the estranged mother and daughter both spin fantasies to escape from their current reality. (Her family does not know what Caye actually does for a living.)

While Caye is emotionally isolated from her family, Zulema’s is far from her physically but close to her heart. At first, Caye confronts the Dominican immigrant about cutting into her business. But Zulema’s illegal status has trapped her into being blackmailed by a creepy civil servant, spurring Caye into being the newcomer’s protector. While not a Pretty Woman fairy tale as the film meanders from incident to incident, these very articulate women have neither a pimp nor an addiction, but we do see other prostitutes without their gumption who are on drugs or flamboyantly displaying all their wares in raucous street meat markets. HIV realistically hovers in the background as a volunteer regularly hands out condoms, discussing how to enforce their use, and Caye introduces Zulema to a free clinic. (The director and cast spent research time with such an organization.)

In the grand tradition of actresses earning awards for portraying prostitutes (Shirley Jones, Kim Basinger, etc.), Candela Peña makes her mark, and her performance raises the film above the clichés it otherwise approaches. Preternaturally eloquent, Caye weaves poetically beautiful fantasies, expressing her philosophy of life and dreams for the future. Peña’s performance is so heartbreaking that she establishes emotional credibility for the lengthy monologues that melt into voice-overs.

Zulema’s introduction of Caye to her neighborhood of exiles is lovely, with its street bazaar, exotic foods, phone centers, and home away from home bars blaring native music. As Zulema, Micaela Nevárez, a Puerto Rican actress from New York in her endearing film debut, is gorgeous, from her flowing hair to her voluptuous figure; her beauty is incorporated into the women’s discussions about marketing their goods to men. However, Nevárez makes Zulema a complete woman; her phone calls home to her mother and son, under a clock set to Dominican time, tear out your heart.

The best scenes deal with what we rarely see or hear from Hollywood Whores with Hearts of Gold – the racial frictions between native and immigrant sex workers. The Spaniards spout how the darker girls are trained at a young age to strut and that they must have arrived on rafts. “On principle,” a hairdresser refuses to do “African braids” and calls the cops on the immigrants, leading to a crisis in the two friends’ relationship.

The film carefully does not paint all men as pigs (two even unexpectedly give pleasure as well as get it). A moving interlude comes out of Caye’s accidental meeting with a computer programmer (Luis Callejo as Manuel) whose naïve openness charms her into shedding her defensive wall of brash indifference. It is striking that scenes of the ordinary – picking up a date at a corner, cheering at a soccer game – are devastatingly poignant because she’s never had these common experiences and they mean so much to her. Very impressively, director Fernando León de Aranoa never has Manuel react stereotypically to Caye – she is the one paralyzed by fear.

With Aranoa’s experience as a documentary filmmaker, Princesas is part of the Spanish new wave of neo-realist films, such as Pedro Pérez-Rosado’s Agua Con Sal (Salt Water) and Manuel Martín Cuenca’s Malas Temporadas (Hard Times) that reveal tensions between immigrants and Spaniards who share only a language. Director of photography Ramiro Civita’s frequent hand-held camera and peering long-shots through windows reinforce the documentary feel. Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score is beautiful, highlighted by entrancing flamenco guitar. Two of the songs are originals by the socially conscious international star Manu Chao, with lyrics specifically describing the characters, though the English translations are a bit awkward.

In addition to its limited theatrical release, Princesas will be immediately available through the Cablevision and Comcast on-demand cable service, IFC in Theaters. With its rich, saturated cinematography, evocative music, and strong lead performances, it deserves to be seen and heard in a theater. Nora Lee Mandel
August 23, 2006



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