Roberto De Paolis’ second film has such a heightened sense of the absurd — a playful, almost naïve tone that’s completely at odds with its subject matter — that it can only come from real life. That turns out to be very much the case in the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons section opener Princess, a story based on the true-experiences of Nigerian sex workers, many of them trafficked, in contemporary Italy. The result is a curiously queasy mix of comedy and drama that, while taking an admirable view of its lead character as a complex heroine rather than a victim to be pitied, falls into many of the same tropes in more cliched depictions of prostitution.
The title character, Princess (Glory Kevin), works in a forest outside a major city with her friend Success, with whom she competes for “clients” — usually white men who pull up in their sports cars, trucks and family hatchbacks. Princess wears a pink wig, Success a red wig, and later, after a falling out, they swap hairpieces to see who’s the more popular.
It’s a largely skittish story, but the opening scenario sets a rather odd tone; after being teased by a bunch of mean construction workers posing as punters, Princess finds some road kill and takes it back to the ramshackle camp where she and Success cook it for the rest of their loose-knit, largely Nigerian circle of friends.
This is a rare glimpse of the true poverty experienced by these working girls, whose “othered” existence is completely mediated by money — from the societal pressures of needing it just to get by to the greed of their families back home. The talk is quick-fire, a mix of pidgin English and very basic Italian that would be almost impossible to follow without subtitles and which leads to some quite amusing miscommunications (the street-cast Kevin has a natural gift for physical comedy).
For the most part, though, Princess details the life such girls would live in this oddly timeless forest world, which is free of pimps and surprisingly low in terms of miseries one would expect to see inflicted upon prostitutes (one of the worst things to happen to Princess is that a creepy taxi driver, having inveigled her into posing nude, drives off with all her clothes).
Princess even gets to enjoy life a little, when a kind stranger comes along looking for mushrooms. His name is Corrado (Lino Musella), and Princess gives him the hard sell — she has to do her “job,” after all — but Corrado resists. The next time they meet, he takes more of an interest and so does she, even though he’s the kind of nerdy single guy who takes her on a road trip to the seaside to feed the seagulls. Princess feels safe with him, and a chaste love story of sorts evolves — although it’s never quite explained how anyone could fall so quickly for a random prostitute they met in the bushes (not quite the set-up of Pretty Woman, that’s for sure), another fault of a script that seems more like a collage of recollections and anecdotes than a finely honed character piece.
Despite our fears for Princess, the film ends on a bittersweet tone, thankfully, eschewing any kind of last-reel upset in favor of something more grounded (the film has a strange caper tone reminiscent of Fernando Di Leo’s controversial 1978 exploitation movie Being Twenty, which famously ended in a shocking scene of random violence). But at the same time, there’s a sense of anticlimax, in that, by being neither gritty and hard-hitting nor radically light-hearted, Princess doesn’t really come with any stakes. Princess herself is an engaging and, because of her fixation with money, often brazenly unsympathetic character, but she’s the only aspect of the film that’s likely to linger in the memory.