Dir: Henrique Goldman. Italy/Germany/Brazil. 2000. 96 mins.
Along with acclaimed documentary Southern Comfort and musical Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Henrique Goldman's absorbing Princesa blazed a trail at this year's Sundance Film Festival for movies with transgender heroes or heroines. Centred around a Brasilian transvestite working as a prostitute in Milan and dreaming of a sex-change operation, Princesa lacks the emotionality of the former and avoids the campiness of the latter but its compassionate if bleak portrait of a subject so rarely taken seriously on screen marks it out as a festival favourite and publicity-grabber in limited specialised releases.
Goldman, an accomplished documentary film-maker with one dramatic credit behind him, has fictionalised the true life story of transvestite Fernanda, whose book Princesa inspired the film but who committed suicide before it was made. Using mostly non-professional actors including De Souza, a 19 year-old Brazilian transvestite he met in the Duomo, in the lead, he offers frank insight into the lives of these outsiders; indeed the film feels like a documentary - aided by extensive use of hand-held camera and natural lighting.
Often too stark, downplaying emotional displays in favour of lowkey realism, Princesa is ultimately effective in conveying the insoluble conflict between Fernanda's need for community and her struggle for normality. De Souza's performance as Fernanda is problematic, however: she is lifeless and cold in a role which cries out for some more personality.
The film starts with her arrival in Milan by train. On showing her passport to inspectors, she is detained since the passport photo is of the boy she used to be. But the middle aged police officer who subsequently questions her lets her go, on condition that she gives him a blow job.
So starts Fernanda's life as a social outcast but the object of straight men's desire. Dressed in the glamorous persona of Princesa, she gets work under transexual pimp Karin (Pecorari) and dreams of saving up enough money to have a sex change operation, find a husband and lead a normal life as a woman. And indeed one night, she meets Gianni (Bocci), a handsome straight man who is initially repulsed when he finds out that she is not a real woman but then comes back for more. The two fall in love, he leaves his wife for her and offers to pay for the operation. But Fernanda finds that, despite his enthusiasm, she can never really fit into his world.
Prod cos: Parallax Pictures. Prod: Rebecca O'Brien. Scr: Ellis Freeman, Henrique Goldman. DoP: Guillermo Escalon. Ed: Kerry Kohler. Mus: Giovanni Venosta. Main cast: Ingrid De Souza, Cesare Bocci, Lulu Pecorari