Claudia (Valeria Conejo) is a lanky 11-year-old girl whose piercing gaze matches a fastidious demeanor. The daughter of Sandinista operatives in Nicaragua during the early 1980s, her one ambition, besides singing, is to be a good Communist. She proudly shows her collection of pioneer pins to everyone she meets and even sings songs in Russian.
When the Contras begin their campaign of terror in Nicaragua, Claudia’s young parents (Fernando Bolanos and Carol Sanabria) are forced to sneak Claudia and her younger sister (Aura Dinarte) across the border and into Costa Rica, where Sandinistas and Communism aren’t welcome. Thus begins a chaotic period in the young girl’s life, as she and her sister are moved from home to home, relative to relative, while their parents continue their clandestine work for the Communist cause back home. And as if things couldn’t get more helter-skelter for the two girls, their mother suddenly splits for Miami, leaving the care of her daughters between their preoccupied father, a resentful maternal grandmother and two senile paternal grandparents. Meanwhile, Claudia’s tumultuous home life makes it seemingly impossible for her to achieve two simple desires: to make friends at school and to sing in the school choir.
You’d be forgiven for assuming Princesas Rojas (Red Princesses) is a political movie, but the political situation in Central America during the early ’80s merely provides the backdrop for a story about a girl nearing adolescence and trying to carve out a life of her own in an unstable time and place. The film centers on Claudia, with sister Antonia playing the sidekick role. It’s not about the Sandinistas or the Contras or what any of the parents are up to. In fact, anyone ill versed in the political history of Latin America will be hardpressed to know exactly what’s going on outside Claudia’s tender world.
The young actress playing Claudia has a girlish voice and smile, but she at times seems experienced beyond her years. Those big spirited eyes suggest an ageless mind — eyes that may not have seen much yet, but see and understand nonetheless. The eyes of the audience members, meanwhile, are fixed on even her slightest gesture. I expect to see a lot more of Valeria Conejo in future starring roles.
Normally when a movie about a certain period looks as if it were shot in that period it’s a plus, but high-definition lenses would’ve actually done this move justice, especially the shots of the Costa Rican hills and the close-ups of the young protagonist. The fadedness provides unwanted distance between the audience and the characters and scenery, and I wish the film’s images were as sharp as the emotions portrayed.
Red Princesses is a touching coming-of-age story whose talented young cast members and dramatic ending will leave you enthralled.
[Photo: Chicago Latino Film Festival]