A young Brazilian transvestite dreams of leaving the streets behind to find love and respectability as a woman in Milan but learns the fairy tale is an imperfect fit in “Princesa.” Taking a subject that lends itself to larger-than-life treatment, director Henrique Goldman delivers a thoughtful, restrained, refreshingly nonjudgmental melodrama that reflects on interesting questions regarding sexuality, identity and self-acceptance. Quietly resonating with universal themes, this affecting story should spring from festival dates into limited arthouse situations.
Based on a real character, the film was adapted and substantially fictionalized by Goldman and Ellis Freeman from the autobiography of the same name by Fernanda Farias de Albuquerque, co-written with Maurizio Jannelli. While the real Fernanda killed herself after publication of the book and involvement in the development of the film, the drama closes here on an ambiguously open-ended note that’s somber but also satisfying, rendered especially poignant by the outcome of its subject.
Set in Milan, the world’s largest transvestite prostitution market, the film points up the city’s contrasting sides, with the wealth, industry, luxury and chic sophistication of its downtown heart countered by the tacky glamour, aggressive sexuality and circus-like atmosphere of its busy flesh-trafficking areas. After being forced to service a sleazy immigration official at the border, 19-year-old Fernanda (Ingrid de Souza) arrives in Italy and hooks up with her old friend Charlo (Biba Lerhue), who turns tricks to finance a drug habit.
Planning to work the streets just long enough to pay for her sex reassignment operation, Fernanda is introduced to Karin (Lulu Pecorari), a middle-aged transsexual who runs the transvestite hooker network. Responding to a certain innocence and purity in deeply religious Fernanda, Karin takes the new recruit under her wing and into her home.
A hit with clients, she is picked up one night by Gianni (Cesare Bocci), a well-heeled, handsome Italian who recoils at first when he discovers she is not biologically a woman. But Gianni’s attraction to her overcomes his ambivalent feelings, prompting him to continue seeing Fernanda, taking her on conventional dates and treating her as a woman, not a whore.
Painting a perhaps uncomplimentary picture of Italian men’s handle on their own sexual proclivities, the film gives provocative treatment to the gray area of ostensibly heterosexual males’ attraction to transvestites. Early on, Charlo amusingly underlines the much greater demand for transvestite hookers than for too-feminine transsexuals, saying, “No dick, no dinner.”
Despite Karin’s warnings and Charlo’s taunts about Gianni being a gay man unable to recognize what he is, the romance flourishes. Offering to bankroll Fernanda’s sex-change, Gianni leaves his wife and sets up house with his new lover, who finally has achieved the middle-class domesticity she dreamed of. But things don’t feel right.
During pre-operative counseling, Fernanda becomes increasingly unsure about taking the drastic step, and her rare encounters with Gianni’s friends make her aware how poorly she fits in. When Gianni’s wife (Alessandra Acciai), distraught and pregnant, comes to see her, Fernanda is forced to rethink her choices and return to reality.
With help from Guillermo Escalon’s gritty lensing, Goldman anchors the warmly observed, melancholy drama firmly in its setting, creating a tangible sense of the twin worlds Fernanda moves between. Only the dated-sounding score by Giovanni Venosta feels misjudged, though this fits with the film’s generally engaging throwback feel to European cinema of the 1960s.
The story’s intriguing characters are well-played by a mainly non-professional cast. De Souza balances vulnerability and longing with dignity and the vaguely regal, theatrical air common to transvestites. One of the few experienced actors on hand, Bocci plays a weak, potentially unsympathetic character as a conflicted, insecure man whose courage in pursuing what he wants surprises perhaps even him. Pecorari brings a languid, imperious quality to Karin, who is appealingly drawn against type as an unexploitative boss reaching out for friendship.