Roughly as old as the world’s oldest profession are the judgments that surround its practitioners, that persist to this day in even the most enlightened of societies. So it’s refreshing to see the subject approached in as clear-eyed, unsentimental and determinedly non-moralistic a manner as in Argentinian director Anahí Berneri’s small but exceptionally precise fifth feature. “Alanis” is a film that deceives: it’s so naturalistic and authentic in its Buenos Aires streetlife setting, and especially in its terrifically real, truculent performance from star Sofía Gala Castiglione —whose  interactions with her obviously real-life infant son lend quasi-documentary interest to scenes of breastfeeding and diaper-changing — that one could almost miss the artistry and care in its construction.

Yet it cannot be by accident that every so often, the elements within the frame, both stationary and moving, seem offhandedly to arrange themselves into tableaux reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Sometimes she’s a tattooed, bruised Venus; sometimes she’s a Nursing Madonna, only here, the Virgin is a hooker and the blue silks and ruby satins that usually bedeck her form are synthetic poly-mixes in cheap, clingy cuts.

Alanis is a name she uses — one that everyone assumes she took “because of the singer” — but really, she’s Maria. She has an adorable 18-month-old called Dante, and rents an off-the-books apartment with her friend and fellow prostitute Gisela (Dana Basso). But the authorities intrude on this stable, if hardly idyllic, setup and arrest Gisela for procurement, which, unlike prostitution itself, is a crime in Argentina. Maria’s landlord locks her and Dante out, and they end up crashing with her aunt Andrea (Silvina Sabater) and her partner Ramon (Carlos Vuletich). Maria promises to find work, and even does a stint as a cleaner, but much to Andrea’s disapproval, she gravitates back to turning tricks. Only this time, without a base from which to ply her trade, Maria is on the streets, competing for clients with the established community of mostly black streetwalkers with their territories, cliques and codes.

This should be yet another slice of social-realist miserablism, but though the degradations and humiliations mount, the willful Maria remains surprisingly, gratifyingly unbowed. It’s not that she’s a likeable presence either: She’s far too prickly and mistrustful for that, and Castiglione’s crescent eyes remain wary and guarded despite the amount of time Luis Sens’ camera spends in claustrophobic close-up on her face.

But Maria is mysteriously whole. Only ever open and joyful in the moments with Dante, elsewhere she’s often caught studying her own reflection, as though searching for clues to a self that remains pridefully intact despite increasingly desperate circumstances. In this regard, too, Berneri’s aesthetic approach is noteworthy: Where so often mirrors are used as cinema pop-psychology shorthand for broken personalities and fractured identities, here the effect is different. Maria regards herself in dirty bathroom mirrors, two-way interrogation room windows, cheap wicker-framed looking-glasses, storefronts, windshields and the sleazy sex-mirror in a pay-by-the-hour hotel room complete with stripper pole. But these reflective surfaces somehow make her seem all the more impregnable, all the more solid, for being constantly contextualized, constantly put her in her place.

Berneri is a regular on the festival circuit, and “Alanis” — which unspooled in Toronto and is her third title to play in San Sebastian — is probably too modest in scale to break out of that loop. Within it, however, it deserves a long and lauded life. It gently investigates two archetypes of classic, insidious misogyny — the whore and the madonna — in the person of Maria, whose very name echoes that of both the most famous mother and the most famous prostitute, and who is both, yet wholly defined by neither. So though it lacks a grand arc of change for its characters — most of whom end the film more thoroughly entrenched in existing behaviors than ever — perhaps that’s just because Berneri’s real aim is simultaneously smaller and much more ambitious: a shift in attitude on the part of the viewer.

In that aim, she quietly succeeds, because without ever making Maria’s choices seem aspirational or even wise, and certainly not selling short the inherent peril and sordidness of this way of life, she gradually imbues in us a respect for this difficult and often wrongheaded character that we could not have felt at the outset. “Alanis” starts as the story of a prostitute. But it ends as a careful, artful portrait of a self-determined woman who lives without expectation of help or even compassion, and thereby earns the right to also live without apology.

Film Review: ‘Alanis’

Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Official Selection), Sept. 23rd, 2017. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: <strong>83 MIN. </strong>

  • Production: (Argentina) A Varsovia Films production in coproduction with Laura Cine, Rosaura Films. (International sales: Fandango, Rome.) Producers: Diego Dubcovsky. Co-producers: Laura Huberman, Anahi Berneri.
  • Crew: Director: Anahí Berneri. Screenplay: Berneri, Javier De Couter. Camera (color): Luis Sens. Editors: Delfine Castagnino, Andres Pepe Estrada. Music: Nahuel Berneri.
  • With: Sofía Gala Castiglione, Dante Della Paolera, Dana Basso, Silvina Sabater, Carlos Vuletich. (Spanish dialogue)