“Princess puts a camera on the fringes of society and shows that interesting people dwell there, people who carve out their own world despite being at best looked down upon, and at worst shunned.”
Europe, and in particular Southern Europe, is burdened by a steady influx of immigrants. With barely the resources or support to handle this, human trafficking is a danger that raises its ugly head more often than not. Making a film about this could easily get into ‘misery porn’ territory, but Roberto De Paolis’ sophomore film Princess instead treats its titular character, a streetwalker on the outskirts of Rome, with a focus on her positivity and spritely demeanour, no matter how dire her life situation is when you take a step back. On the back of a very charismatic performance by debutante Glory Kevin, Princess is a charming and authentic coming-of-age film that is a breath of fresh air in the small genre of films about the life of immigrants.
Princess’ working grounds are the forests outside of Rome. Even though in her late teens, her streetwise demeanour speaks volumes about the life already behind her. Living with a number of other Nigerian women in the same profession and having to endure the disdain and maltreatment by her customers, Princess hustles for her daily income with a rapid-fire mouth and a mishmash of Italian and English, and an almost larger-than-life attitude. But she isn’t a piteous character, her positivity and almost childlike spontaneity overcoming the disrespect she gets from the men she lures into the woods. When she meets a friendly man, Corrado (a wonderfully understated Lino Musella), roaming ‘her’ forest in search of mushrooms, a tender friendship develops. Princess is unsure how to deal with this man who doesn’t seem to want sex, but companionship. Cautiously opening up and letting her guard down, she slowly feels integrated and accepted, pushing her immigrant background away. But can it ever truly be?
De Paolis wrote the screenplay in cooperation with a number of Nigerian girls who are in the same situation as Princess, some of them playing themselves in the film. This lends Princess a strong sense of authenticity, although it also causes the film to feel fragmentary, a string of short stories and unconnected scenes. The through line of the film that holds it all together is Princess’ interaction with Corrado, and their scenes together make the film soar. This is in no small part down to the actors, Corrado charmingly calm against a bubbling Glory Kevin. In her first role Kevin’s acting is a little rough around the edges, but she makes up for it with an infectious and lively personality that renders her performance raw and realistic.
With Princess, De Paolis has created an uplifting film about a topic that is traditionally approached from a depressing angle, playing on the conscience of the viewer, inevitably better off than the protagonist. Apart from a misguided ending that leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, Princess doesn’t present its title character as a victim but as a young woman with agency, despite her naivete, who makes the best of her situation without complaints. Her faith plays a big role in this, and her scenes as part of a Nigerian congregation of worshippers are among the best in the film. Princess puts a camera on the fringes of society and shows that interesting people dwell there, people who carve out their own world despite being at best looked down upon, and at worst shunned. And when we open up and show interest to such people, something magical can happen.