'Plaza de la Soledad': Sundance Review

Plaza de la Soledad still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Beautifully shot as you would expect, and touching, but not always as probing as it could be.

Noted photographer Maya Goded's debut documentary feature meets middle-aged and elderly prostitutes still working Mexico CIty's streets.

Plaza de la Soledad, acclaimed Mexican photographer Maya Goded’s first impressive foray into feature-length documentary making, draws on a subject previously explored in the director’s still photography: middle-aged and elderly prostitutes working in Mexico City’s impoverished red-light district, La Merced. Having already built up trust with her five main subjects over years of photographing them, Goded reaps the benefits with open-hearted confessions to camera that are alternately funny, revealing, and sometimes painfully sad. A painterly, humane work, it should travel far to further festivals and perhaps find niche distribution in sophisticated markets.

Although several of the women do ply their trade from a shady open area with benches, the titular plaza of solitude (one translation of “soledad”) is more a state of mind rather than a geographic place. All of the women bear their own crosses of regret and pain, existentially alone, even though the film takes pains to illustrate that they also have families, friends and lovers outside of the field of sex work.

Sixty-eight-year-old Carmen, for example, to whom Goded dedicated two of her books, has a passionate marriage with Carlos, who was himself raised amongst prostitutes and who seems to accept her profession completely. Actually, there’s subtle hints that he might be her pimp, but the film is reluctant to plumb such nitty-gritty details.

Instead, Goded prefers to let images do much of the talking for her, for example when her camera sits back and observes Carlos and Carmen dancing tipsily, or watches as the lady sits moved as her man serenades her in a karaoke bar. There are close-ups from time to time. But Goded’s preferred position is a few feet back to show her subjects in full figure (and most of them, indeed, have full, luscious figures), all the better to show their surroundings, be they cozy cluttered homes or dingy hotel rooms or the streets of the city. One lovely shot captures one interviewee, and the director and another subject reflected in two mirrors, the sort of tricky set up that shows off Goded’s photographic skills and eye for composition.

Nevertheless, the interviews do fascinate. Other subjects include Esther and Angeles, a lesbian couple who’ve been together for 14 years but who still enjoy violent fights and hot make-up sex with each other when they’re not working the streets. Placid-seeming Lety looks like she’s seen it all, but still she frets about the future of her children and grandchildren. The most colorful of the lot is aged Raquel, a grand old dame who wears a wig at all times, even when swimming in a river, because of advice given by her tarot-card reader.

With no titles to identify or explain and no synthesizing voiceover, it falls to Valentina Leduc’s sensitive editing to build a sense of cohesion. Still, some viewers may feel frustrated by the sparse approach and long to know more about the subjects’ back stories, relationships and means of survival. Refreshing though it is to see women so at ease with their bodies and sexuality, and so matter of fact about prostitution, the odd mention here and there of violent encounters underscores that it’s still a dangerous line of work.

Production companies: A Monstro Films production, in co-production with Alebrije Producciones, La Sombra del Guayabo
Director/cinematographer: Maya Goded
Producers: Martha Sosa, Eamon O’Farrill, Monica Lozano
Co-producer: Carlos Hagerman
Editor: Valentina Leduc
Composers: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman
Sales: East Village Entertainment
No rating, 84 minutes