Third feature from Sicilian specialist Aurelio Grimaldi offers a random compendium of prostitution in Palermo that’s peppered with luminous moments and casually acute observations. Ultimately, though, this volley of occasionally overlapping but mostly unrelated flesh-trafficking episodes flails about aimlessly and unevenly in the absence of a unifying thread. “The Whores” should turn a trick or two on the odd Euro arthouse beat, but these girls are unlikely to be run off their feet.
The most satisfying narrative track follows the lazy cottage industry of Orlanda (Ida Di Benedetto), a sweetly surly Neapolitan just past her prime. Formerly the self-declared best in the business, she now receives a steady North African clientele at home, who uncomplainingly weather her racist epithets and unceremonious manners.
One of them eventually entertains notions of unpaid romance, stepping in to defend her from a predatory john. His gallantry having taken her by surprise, Di Benedetto does a florid double-take that combines amusement, derision and a sneaking enjoyment of the flattery.
Elsewhere, forays into melodramatic cliches weigh heavily: A streetwalker who’s also a doting mother (Lucia Sardo) has some doozies to deal with, from the proud First Communion scene to the solitary Christmas to the tearful vow to one day carve out a better life.
Similarly obvious is the story of a hostile male hooker (Marco Leonardi), driven to violence by the kindly attentions of his patron (Adriano Chiaramida). Another line, centering on cocky Liuccia (Guia Jelo), starts out promisingly but lumbers into grotesquerie when she gets a beating instead of a fee.
Grimaldi presents prostitution as a workaday, sometimes literally assembly-line job, taking a detached, non-judgmental and naggingly superficial standpoint.
The five women, one man and a transvestite who are seen plying the trade are simplistically shown, largely controlling their own destinies and toiling without undue complaint. The prevailing mood is mostly a quietly humorous one, with a theatrically contrived Jehovah’s Witness encounter the only jarring exception.
Shortcomings are masked chiefly by the subject’s enduring fascination and by the engaging cast of primarily non-pros and legit thesps.
The film also travels an admirable tonal range, shifting constantly from playful through somber, aided by the variety of music sources tapped. Italo pop diva Mina warbles over the catchily promising title sequence.
A further boost comes from Maurizio Calvesi’s agile black-and-white lensing, which offers a stream of low, skewy angles and seductive, unfettered tracking shots. The camera fetishizes both the beauty and ugliness of the whores’ and their customers’ bodies. Sex is frequently depicted here, but in matter-of-fact, transactional terms, its erotic charge cranked low.