Maya Goded was taking widely exhibited still photographs of the women in “Plaza de la Soledad” long before she decided to make a debut documentary feature about them. Unsurprisingly, then, she gets unusually intimate, relaxed access to the non-professional lives of those who practice the world’s oldest profession from a square just behind the president’s office in Mexico City. Frank but far from lurid, this verite slice of sex workers’ often rough yet resiliently good-humored lives will appeal to fests and more open-minded tube berths.
Though they don’t discuss their ages (or the impact of their ages on trade), the principal subjects here have long since ceased to fit a conventional, titillating image of prostitution: They’re past 50, and one is closer to 80. Yet they’re still ready to rumba, or to demonstrate miscellaneous other sexy moves with their ample forms. Any shame they feel about a job generally taken for lack of any other options seems well buried. However, one gets a brief taste of the pervasive social biases they’ve faced when we hear another woman (not a sex worker) parrot the dismal but all-too-widespread wisdom that girls are somehow to blame for their own formative sexual abuse, because they “allowed” it.
The veterans spotlit here do cry easily when remembering pasts that often include beatings, rape and underage pregnancy. They speak of colleagues murdered by tricks. Yet in their everyday now, they sport a remarkably cheerful attitude. Among them are two middle-aged women who’ve been in a turbulent but loving relationship together for several years; another who continues to work while married to a former client (himself the son of a pimp and streetwalker); and a senior still holding out hope she’ll meet her “true love” yet. The sole significant younger figure here, lesbian-identifying Lupe, is thrilled to be bringing a newborn son into the world — even though when we last see her, the two of them appear to be homeless.
Though there are no real story arcs, just fragmentary vignettes, the insightful episodes here include one woman’s journey back to the village where her entire family was disgraced as a result of her sexual assault at age 8; another woman’s admittedly finance-driven relationship with a lonely 84-year-old man (he helps support her daughter’s cancer treatments); and one who vows “I’ll never leave the square. Even when I die, I want my ashes to be scattered here. (These women) are my family.”
Though the film’s narrow purview leaves many questions unanswered (and doesn’t leave room for input from johns or police), the warm rapport Goded has with her subjects is enlightening, taking some of the usual “victim” sheen off their profession. While many no doubt would have preferred a different life path, they’re proud of the skills they’ve honed over time. They refuse to accept misery as their lot, finding love and happiness where they can.
Goded’s flavorful lensing amplifies that pragmatic, cautiously upbeat tenor, and a pleasant soundtrack of both new instrumental tracks and golden-oldie ballads completes a nicely turned package. Pic’s fair amount of casual nudity (none of it remotely “well toned”) may present a hurdle for some broadcasters.