In "Princesses," a warmhearted, sharp-eyed study of a roller-coaster friendship between two women who happen to be prostitutes, Fernando Leon de Aranoa confirms his Loach-like ability to convert marginalized subjects into socially committed cinema. As with his two most recent features, "Neighborhood" and "Mondays in the Sun," this loosely-structured pic feels authentic, its underdramatized script resolutely nonjudgmental. Helmer's rep means that "Princesses" could get a royal reception in selected English language and Latin American arthouses despite its difficult subject matter.
The family of Caye (Candela Pena, excellent) doesn't know she works the streets.
Wanting to complain about the noise in the apartment block where she lives, she discovers Dominican prostitute Zulema (statuesque Micaela Nevarez) in the bathroom, badly beaten up. Her aggressor is a civil servant (Antonio "Morris" Duran, superbly creepy), with whom Zulema is sleeping gratis on the promise he will one day obtain residence papers for her.
In the low-rent hair salon where Caye hangs out with her hooker friends, the attitude toward immigrant women is negative, but the big-hearted Caye accompanies Zulema, who is working to send money back to her 5-year-old kid in the Dominican Republic, to the hospital, and becomes a kind of guardian angel to her.
Lonesome in the street one night, Caye picks up computer technician Manuel (Luis Callejo), who tells her over a drink that the key to professional success is the passion one puts into one's work. An example of the film's wonderful dialogue, occasionally punctuated by carefully judged silence, is Manuel reaction to learning Caye is a prostie.
Leon's feel for emotional truth means he sidesteps most of the cliches implicit in hooker-based material, neither playing things didactically or taking the loose, drifting storyline to a moralistic conclusion.
Caye is an engaging creation, brought to life by a fine thesp with a face that can switch from joy to melancholy in a split second. Blissfully ignorant of real life, she's a dreamer whose imaginings are unexciting, if sadly plausible -- all she wants, for example, is for someone to pick her up after work.
Pic's greatest strength is its dialogue, particularly the catty, absurdist hair-salon banter and the heart-to-hearts -- backed by delicate guitar and piano -- between Caye and Zulema, during which Caye reveals herself to be a street philosopher, sometimes at too great length. ("We exist because someone is thinking about us," she rhapsodizes.) There is also much verbal comedy, sharply played.
Visuals are quasi-docu, with much busy, hand-held lensing (a new stylistic trait for the helmer), but only on occasion are the images graphic. On the negative side, Zulema's stint as a sex education teacher goes nowhere in particular, the issue of why Caye is a prostitute is not addressed, and there are a couple of minor characters too many.
Camera (color), Ramiro Civita; editor, Nacho Ruiz Capillas; art director, Llorenc Miquel; sound (Dolby Digital), Miguel Rejas, Polo Aledo. Reviewed at Cines Acteon, Madrid, Aug. 30, 2005. Running time: 113 MIN.