As a train approaches Milan, an immigration official on board takes note of a striking young passenger and detains her in his station office. He perceives in her something that will elude many watching Henrique Goldman's poignant "Princesa": that she is a transsexual.
This 19-year-old Brazilian beauty understands without discussion that she will have to grant him sexual favors. The poised and proud Fernanda (Ingrid de Souza) takes this exploitation in stride, for she has come all the way from a town in the Amazon to earn enough money to pay for a sex-change operation that will make her a "normal" woman.
She then will be able to fulfill a dream that has sustained her since childhood: to find a husband and become a housewife. Fernanda has followed an older friend, Charlo (Biba Lerhue), a transvestite who is part of a group of Brazilian sex workers who have discovered they can make far more money in Italy than at home. Through the cynical Charlo, Fernanda, who calls herself "Princesa" after a role she craved to play in a grade-school production, meets Karin (Lulu Pecorari), a successful, middle-aged transsexual madam who is lonely and so taken with the immediately popular newcomer that she invites her to live in her elegant apartment.
Princesa encounters a john who does not clock her as the pre-op transsexual she is and shrinks in horror at his discovery. Yet Gianni (Cesare Bocci), a 40-ish attorney, is so dazzled that he returns full of apologies, sparking a romance.
With "happily ever after" in reach, Princesa begins a journey of self-discovery that begins at a gender reassignment clinic where she learns the range of gender permutations. She realizes that after her gender decision, there will still be the need for self-acceptance.
Fernanda's life unfolds with discretion, compassion and humor under the sensitive yet lively direction of Goldman, who collaborated with Ellis Freeman on the script, a fictional tale inspired by the real-life Fernanda, to whom the film is dedicated.
With the exception of Bocci, a professional actor, and Mauro Pirovano, who plays a kindly but garrulous john, key roles are played by transsexuals. Goldman achieves a smooth ensemble effect.
The well-made "Princesa" is daring, for it ends on an upbeat note in circumstances that are traditionally treated otherwise.
Unrated. Times guidelines: Adult themes and situations, strong language, discreet treatment of sex.
Ingrid de Souza ... Fernanda
Cesare Bocci ... Gianni
Lulu Pecorari ... Karin
Biba Lerhue ... Charlo
A Strand release of an Anglo-Italo-Germanic co-production: Parallaz Pictures (London)/ BIM Distribuzione (Rome)/Road Movies Filmproduktion (Berlin). Director Henrique Goldman. Producer Rebecca O'Brien. Screenplay by Goldman and Ellis Freeman; based on the book by Maurizio Jannelli and Fernanda Farias de Albuquerque. Cinematographer Guillermo Escalon. Editor Kerry Kohler. Music Giovanni Venosta. Costumes Nivia Sibulka. Production designer Andrea Melo. In Italian and Portuguese, with English subtitles.
Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 112272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.