‘Red Princesses’ (‘Princesas Rojas’): Film Review

Princesas rojas Red Princesses Still - H 2014
Courtesy of HOL y Asociados

Princesas rojas Red Princesses Still - H 2014

True-feeling but dramatically flawed study of politics’ effects on the emotions

Costa Rica’s Oscar nomination is a semi-autobiographical drama about family breakdown under political pressure

A film about a little girl who is twice exiled -- once from her country, and again from her family -- Red Princesses is a touching, intimate family drama that’s suffused with a refreshing air of truth from first frame to last, but which suffers from a failure to explore the emotional depths it hints at. A well-observed if sometimes confusing take about a family -- and particularly a superbly-played little girl -- in breakdown mode, the film’s genesis in the memories of its director Laura Astorga means that Costa Rica's 2015 Foreign Language Oscar nomination is never quite free to blossom into the fulfilling drama which, at its outset it promised to be.

It’s the late 1980s, and Felipe (Fernando Bolanos) and Magda (Carol Sanabria) are escaping with their young daughters Claudia (Valeria Conejo) and Antonia (Aura Dinarte) back to their home in Costa Rica after spending time fighting for the Sandinista cause in Nicaragua. By doing so they’ve placed themselves and their children in danger, and a palpable air of paranoia and suspicion hangs over everything they do: Felipe insists to the girls that they must not reveal any secrets, a task which they’re incapable of fulfilling.

The girls end up at the home of their well-to-do cousins, where they have to wear girl scout uniforms, and at a school where the rebellious Claudia has to join the choir and sing religious songs rather than the Russian ones she prefers from her Sandinista days. But Magda is unhappy and, after a some comings and goings, abandons the family: it later transpires that she’s escaped to Miami. In a nutshell, the problem for the family is that Felipe wants to be in Costa Rica, Magda wants to be in the US, and the girls want to be back in Nicaragua. Something has to give, and it’s Claudia.

Red Princesses has the feel of an an autobiographical piece, which is its both its strength and its weakness. It’s a strength in that the film is thick with telling little details which are so sharp that they must surely derive from Astorga’s recollection of her own experiences -- trading Soviet badges for trinkets with her cousins, for example, or a music teacher’s surprise when Claudia starts singing in Russian.

The downside is that through the first half of the story, there’s too much meaningless movement as the children are shifted from one place to another, as though Astorga is unclear about whether she wants to document her own actual experiences on film -- the original intention, apparently, was to make a documentary -- or to reassemble those experiences as fiction, which would have meant tightening the plot up through several sequences.

The story is delivered from Claudia’s viewpoint, and as such sometimes what’s happening is as confusing for the viewer as it is for the young girl: but it’s a moot point whether such audience confusion can ever be justified. But Valeria Conejo does great work in maintaining the dramatic burden, giving a performance which shows Claudia hardening into maturity amidst the emotional confusions which surround her.

Red Princesses, after all, is a film not about politics, but about the emotional scars which politics can inflict, and in this regard it is excellent. This is a film about a family which has forgotten how to talk, about characters -- particularly that of the twisted Magda - who have forgotten to feel the things they should be feeling, so that the bonds between parents and children have become broken.

It is in this world of repressed and distorted emotion than Claudia and Antonia have been forced to grow up, a world which is presented with truth and clarity and without the slightest concession to the easy sentimentality into which it could so easily have descended. That said, neither does the film ever really transmit the dark emotional places into which Astorga must have gone.

The adult performances can’t match the childrens’, partly because the insistence on Claudia’s viewpoint means that the other characters can’t blossom into full individuality. Felipe, for example, is little more than a hunted, haunted man, while Magda, whose impact on events is key, is absent from the screen for too long. Too many other characters come and go, captured by nervy, often hand-held photography by Julio Costantini which transmits well the climate of half-heard whispers and uncertainty in which these unfortunate children are growing up.

Production company: HOL y Asociados, LaFeria Producciones, Sue Cinema

Cast: Valeria Conejo, Aura Dinarte, Fernando Bolanos, Carol Sanabria
Director: Laura Astorga
Screenwriters: Laura Astorga, Daniela Goggi
Executive producers: Marcela Esquivel Jimenez, Aldrina Valenzuela Rojas
Director of photography: Julio Costantini

Production designer: Gabrio Zapelli, Fedra Brenes
Editors: Daniel Prync, Cesar Custodio, Ariel Escalante, Sergio Marcano
Composer: Lester Paredes
Sales: Latido Films

No rating, 102 minutes