It’s rare to find ordinary working folks as the subjects of serious, well-done movies and even rarer when those workers are prostitutes.  Not that there is any shortage of prostitutes in movies; far from it.  Something about the shock and awe values of these decades practically requires their presence, if not as girls with hearts of gold at least as dead bodies.  To see them as the subject of a story is a rarity.  Working Girls, a U.S. offering from 1985 comes to mind as one serious attempt, marred by a level of sexploitation. It’s also awkward to watch 25 years later.  The production and acting values are just above high amateur.  Klute of course, with Jane Fonda, Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts are on the list, but neither is about “the life.”  Luis Buñuel‘s Belle du Jour with Catherine Deneuve, while wonderful,  is devoted to the central character, not to the community of sisters.

Enter “Princesas” a very compelling though straight forward story about a gaggle of girls working a public plaza in Madrid, Spain.  The old timers, all Spaniards, operate out of a beauty shop looking onto the plaza.  By and large they are more stable, have been used to making decent money and can take time for make-up, nails and gossip.  The object of much of their gossip are the girls outside — newcomers, exotic leggy beauties of all shades and points of origin, and most of them illegal.  They strut their wares instead of waiting for phone calls; they chance the quickie in the car driving by and get stiffed and punched on unlucky days; they eat their lunch from boxes while sitting on the curb.  They also cut into the trade of the old timers, who don’t shy from calling the cops on them from time to time.

Caye, short for Cayetano, [Candela Peña] plays the pro, walking into a hospital room full of young men to give a surprise to the guy in bed.  She lays out the rules in a wonderfully Spanish no-nonsense way.  “No touching.  Understood?  The only one who does any touching in here is me. Money up front.  OK, let’s go.” Her cell phone goes off constantly. She answers or not, as she pleases, making dates in ambiguous phrases in front of friends and family.

Interestingly, she is the second daughter of a well set bourgeois family, whose father died a few years ago.  She and her sister and brother have dinner once a week or so with their mother, putting up with her pretense that her husband has not actually died, that he is sending her flowers and candy to beg her forgiveness and be allowed to return.  There is no filmic suggestion of why the situation exists.  It’s a job.  She has it.  It’s pretenses are no worse than her mothers, though that doesn’t seem to be a motive for the making.  It just is.

The story really begins when Caye, who lives in a typical Spanish high-rise apartment, discovers that a girl who grabbed  one of her dates when she was late, lives above her across the courtyard. Going up to give her a tongue lashing for infringing on her turf,  Caye finds her savagely beaten up in her own apartment.  A trip to the hospital and the two become friends.  Zulema [Mariana Cordero] is from the Dominican Republic.

The film is essentially about their growing friendship, from girl-talk over coffee (“I’m saving up so I can get some tits like yours.  Men like them big, right?”] to serious sharing of future hopes and present difficulties.  They go shopping for a toy for Zulema’s son, to whom she talks weekly,  telling him she’ll be home soon.  Caye shares her hopes for a new boyfriend — a computer programmer, who makes her laugh.  Her idea of an idyllic life is one where love is shown by the man picking her up from work at the end of the day, something not possible in her present circumstances.

A meth addicted former prostitute appears from time to time, giving a chance to show the Spanish are no warmer to self-made messes than Americans or any others for that matter, and also letting Caye show the reach of her helping heart.  Not only does she give up her “tit” money to help Zulema get back home, she is more accepting of Ms. Meth than the others.  This is all told in a matter of fact way.  We don’t have a heart-of-gold story, with its sentimental morality tale, just a story of day to day life for people we wouldn’t otherwise know much about.

The new-at-the-time cell phones have a particular presence in the movie, forever ringing and often going unanswered — to the distress of the mother at dinner, or the boyfriend out on a date.  Not only do they add visceral tension to the movie — will she answer?  Who is calling?  What will she say?  They also work symbolically to show the end of the possibility of separating one part of life from the other.  That which once could be kept partitioned, no longer can be.  We all take our work home, and take our homes into work.  This breaking down of separation works nicely also as Caye realizes that, although to her “the life’ is just “a” life, it is not so to her possible boyfriend.  She cannot have the love she dreams of — as a Princes– and continue this line of work, as as one nasty scene in a restaurant bathroom makes clear.  Nor can her irritation at her mother’s pretense about the absent father stand up so long as she has pretense about her own work.  Again, the phone in the closing scene, shatters the brittle barrier of pretending.

The actual sexuality in the film is very restrained.  There is more full frontal panting in American chick-flicks or escape films (think The American with George Clooney) than in Princesas.  Doors  are closed or left slightly ajar.  We see, we know but we are not turned into unwilling voyeurs.  This is a first rate film, very likely very true about prostitution in Madrid 15 years ago, about friendships shallow and deep, with two first rate actresses.

Candela Peña as the rock, is a widely experienced Spanish actress.  She has played in several Almodovar films and won national film awards.  Mariana Cordero, playing the long, dark haired Dominican, complete with a local accent, is not as experienced in Peña but does a very expressive job, beguiling us with winsome and appropriate smiles, and showing the reality of work on the streets with purple, swollen eyes and lips.

You’ll come out, I think, without feeling preached to, yet understanding.  This is a life lived by many, some forced, some by choice, some choices from circumstances, some inexplicable.  It’s a hard life — particularly at that lower end of the ladder — and one in which the participants, like workers everywhere, dream their separate dreams, small and large, and mostly get on with day to day life, as best they can.  It´s a life most would not choose, like deep sea fishing, or mining, or piecework in a tennis shoe factory, but it is a life for some, who make do.  It’s a good film to tune your ear for Spanish, as well.  Clipped, quick Madrileño dialect, with a bit of Dominican-Caribbean for contrast.  The locution is clear and you’ll learn a few words that could prove useful in your next erotic encounter with a Spanish speaker!  Fine stuff