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Friendship among prostitutes

The use of a common device yields some uncommon results in `Princesas.'

September 01, 2006|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

Writer-director Fernando Leon de Aranoa embraces a pair of Madrid streetwalkers with such affection and compassion that their story, even though prostitutes are a staple of the movies, actually seems fresh and distinctive. The care and the commitment Aranoa brings to "Princesas" is so intense and steadfast that he inspires captivating performances from Candela Pena (most familiar from her appearance in Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother") and newcomer Micaela Nevarez, for whom he has written dialogue that allows their characters to emerge as individuals rather than types.

Pena's Caye is an attractive brunet of a middle-class family who tells herself that hooking is merely temporary, the quickest means to a particular end. Caye is a no-nonsense but deeply reflective woman, a veritable existential philosopher with a romantic streak. Aranoa might well have revealed Caye's initial motivation to hit the streets, beyond her clear wish not to become like her mother, a widow steeped in mourning, because the viewer can't help but wonder if she had other options. Aranoa's point is that Caye is caught up in the life, no matter how she got there.

Caye lives in a small apartment on a square where hookers stroll constantly. She and her friends hang out at a beauty salon on the square and lament how they are losing business to the influx of less-costly immigrant sex workers, among them Nevarez's stunningly beautiful Zulema, a long-haired goddess from the Dominican Republic who has been hooking in Madrid for 10 months to support her mother and 5-year-old son back home. Zulema and Caye evolve from rivals into fast friends, and the flowering of their friendship becomes the film's linchpin. Both women long for love, but their profession naturally constitutes a formidable challenge -- as when Caye meets an affable, witty computer programmer (Luis Callejo), who seems to be able to accept what she does for a living; he brings to his work a passion that Caye can only envy.

Aranoa evokes a strong sense of Caye and Zulema's everyday existence with its constant perils and fleeting respites. Indeed, Aranoa loves these women so completely that his film seems overly drawn out at nearly two hours and likely would have had greater effect had it been half an hour shorter. Even so, "Princesas" remains largely engaging and rewarding. When prospective dates loom for the two, Zulema says firmly, "Tonight we're not whores; tonight we're princesses." To Aranoa they're clearly never less.



MPAA rating: Unrated. Strong adult themes and situations, violence, blunt language, nudity

An IFC First Take release. Writer-director Fernando Leon de Aranoa. Producers Jaume Roures, Aranoa. Cinematographer Ramiro Civita. Editor Nacho Ruiz Capillas. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Union at Fair Oaks (inside plaza), Pasadena (626) 744-1224.

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