A Nigerian-Italian’s impoverished life on the outskirts of Rome is told as a modern fable in Roberto De Paolis’s Princess.
The self-assured Princess (Glory Kevin) is one of several African women sharing a ramshackle house in rural Ostia. They get by as sex workers, wandering through the forest and waving down potential clients like hitchhikers. Some clients seem OK, others controlling, and the troupe takes care of one another, banding together to protect their own.
One day, Princess crosses paths with Corrado, an older man who’s scouting for mushrooms. He’s the only man she sees in the forest, who isn’t looking to do business with her, and the two begin a charming connection as they continue running into each other. Eventually Corrado takes her out, even paying her for her time: not looking to take advantage, but to treat her to a bakery, go to a nightclub, and enjoy some everyday pleasures of life that are otherwise out-of-reach for someone like Princess.
As challenging as her circumstances are, Princess’s outlook is a pragmatic one. Living on the edge, for her time really is money, so anything taking up her attention or resources, that isn’t transactional, is an opportunity cost to her. As it is, her potential slice of the pie is already limited; she tells Corrado that she and her companions work as they do, wandering up and down the freeway, because “white girls work in the city, black girls work in the woods.” Furthermore, as undocumented Africans living in Italy, they aren’t able to get legitimate jobs, and they lament that their families back home just want them for their money, conditioning these women to become self-reliant with no support from anyone else.
Princess also recounts, to one of her companions, an experience from Nigeria, before moving to Italy: she had a spell cast, swapping her body with another woman’s, so Princess doesn’t feel any physical pain in her line of work. She genuinely believes in this, without a hint of doubt or irony. Throughout the film there are several instances of the magical and spiritual: in her first meeting with Corrado, she asks him if he is a spirit; no doubt his appearance, and non-threatening demeanor, are so out of place compared to the typical men she encounters.
Even the overall setting, largely within the forests of Ostia, is like a storybook fairytale: wandering through the unknown, in nature, and encountering challenges, or helpers, along the way. Anyone and anything can appear through the trees, adding an air of mystery and possibility. The film even begins with mystical, driving chord tone music, evocative of Alan Menken’s score for Beauty and the Beast, and its main titles written in stylized typeface like the cover of a fairytale book.
We first see Princess in a pink wig, during a moment of prayer in the forest; the sun is shining, and there’s the feeling of potential up ahead. The film’s last image is in pitch-black night, of Princess wandering along the road, trying to flag down customers. Her wig is literally off, and we’ve gotten to know the true Princess, but now her hopeful spirit, and possibility for a better future, feel all but gone.
Princess was a nominee at the 2023 David di Donatello awards. Check out the full nominations list here!