Jennifer Merin reviews “Princesas”

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“Princesas” is a truthfully told and profoundly powerful character-driven drama about two “putas” who find in friendship their survival of hope.

In Madrid’s sisterhood of whores, Cayetana (nicknamed Caye, pronounced ’calle,’ which is the Spanish word for street) is an upper class call girl who hangs out with her peers in a beauty salon fronting a seedy square where Zulema and other immigrant street hookers congregate.

Tensions rage between these two competing groups– neither of which, needless-to-say, have even minimally satisfactory working conditions. In fact, all their lives are pretty shitty.

Out of this fecal soil blooms a beautiful friendship between Caye (Candela Pena), alienated from her middle class family who don’t know what she does for a living, and Zulema (NY-based Micaela Nevarez), a Latin American beauty, whose son– the light of her life– is at home in the Dominican Republic, being cared for by her mother, who thinks she’s working as a cashier in a supermarket.

Zulema is perpetually beaten by Johns, but can’t report their violence to the police because she’s doesn’t have her immigration papers– in fact, one of the men who’s beating her is a police officer who dangles the promise of papers in exchange for free fucks.

Caye discovers Zulema after she’s been badly beaten and takes her to the hospital. The women bond, exchanging confidences, sharing details of their personal histories and talking about tricks of their trade. Together, they begin to steal secret moments of normalcy, having fun going shopping and dancing, dining out and discussing their dreams.

Caye’s dream is to be truly loved by one man– the ultimate sign of which would be having him pick her up from work. She imagines herself looking out her office window and seeing him waiting for her in the street below. Just that would be enough. But, it’s not likely to happen because when she meets a prospective mate, her dates with him are always interrupted by calls from her Johns. The expression on her face at these moments is heartbreaking.

Writer/Director Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s script is beautifully crafted. Caye and Zulema express their basic truths in such simple and pure language that everyone can understand them, yet their words are often transformational. The plot reveals the disgraces of prostitution, but is remarkably non-judgmental and refreshingly free of anything salacious or scandalous. The only sordid behavior in the film is the Johns’ violence– and even that is presented matter-of-factly, as men doing what men have been conditioned to think of as their right. You’re spared watching their violence– the beatings never occur on camera. You just see the prelude and the harrowing results.

Cinematically, de Aranoa’s filmmaking is pure poetry and passionate compassion. “Princesas“ is a profoundly humane portrayal of an in-human condition that demands consideration. This film grabs you in the gut in a way that compels you to examine your own beliefs and, hopefully, come to understand that the world’s oldest profession is, for some, something that should be called survival.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).