Fernando León de Aranoa’s latest piece of pop neorealism, Princesas, faithfully employs the template used by 2003’s Mondays in the Sun that asked for soulful lead performances, a semi-verité aesthetic, and a story that’s equal parts slice-of-life snapshot and mushy melodrama. Whereas his prior effort boasted some socio-economic undercurrents, however, Aranoa’s account of Spanish prostitution is almost all surface, concentrating so heavily on the personal and professional ordeals of its characters that it barely exhibits any larger interest in the external forces that conspire to mire women in such hellish situations.
Unbeknownst to her middle-class family, Caye (Candela Peña) walks Madrid’s streets for cash, though her lonely existence is irrevocably changed after she befriends a Dominican named Zulema (Micaela Nevárez) who’s part of a new breed of immigrant whores resented by Caye’s racist, beauty shop-ensconced colleagues. Both dreamers, Caye pines for a boob job and a true love who’ll pick her up from work (which she envisions as the height of romanticism), while Zulema yearns to acquire legal papers that will allow her to rejoin the son she left behind in her native country, the two doggedly maintaining hope for a better future even as they suffer the painful realities—humiliation, stigmatization, physical abuse, disease—inherent in their careers. Working from his own script, Aranoa shrewdly downplays his narrative’s histrionics and most momentous (and foreseeable) twist, and his intimate cinematography and spirited guitar-driven soundtrack (by Manu Chao) wrap Caye and Zulema in a non-judgmental embrace that, when coupled with Peña and Nevárez’s subtly modulated, sympathetic performances, gives the proceedings a compassionate warmth.
Yet whereas the film taps into the low self-esteem and compensatory denial of its protagonists, it stumbles with regard to the character of Caye, mitigating any sincere pathos for her plight by refusing to explain why—as a woman hailing from a caring and financially secure family—she’s willingly chosen such a wretched vocation. And by failing to contextualize its poignant tale within the political realities of Spain, Princesas feels not only a tad thin but redundant, proving to be simply another depiction of flesh trade hardships told with a mixture of somewhat disingenuously restrained grittiness (the scant sexual encounters with johns are fleeting, and violence takes place off-screen), bittersweet pathos, and little of the depth that might help it stand out from the increasingly crowded prostitution-cinema pack.