Lonely, tough Caye (Candela Peña) turns tricks in opposition to her bourgeois, repressed family, especially her deeply deluded mother. However, her busy Madrid trade is threatened by the increasing presence of immigrant girls who undercut the prices of Candela and her Spanish cohorts. She strikes up a tentative friendship with one of her new rivals, Zulema (Micaela Nevárez), a Dominican, after she discovers her badly beaten by a john who has promised to sort out her immigration papers. Both girls are looking for love, yet their circumstances--transitory and dangerous--make this difficult, to say the least.

Princesas is, simply, one of the very best films ever made about that most enduring of professions, prostitution. Written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, every frame of it is informed with a deep humanity as well as the talent of a natural filmmaker. A beauty parlor where the working girls congregate provides a ground central for their arguments, commiserations and earthily comic repartee, and these scenes are both vastly entertaining and informative. This film recalls the 1937 Marked Woman, one of Bette Davis' best, most underrated films, in its unblinking view of sex for money and strong sense of female camaraderie. But, as gritty and fraught as this world is, de Aranoa cannot help but find its inadvertent, inherent beauty in scenes of the cruising ground, where cars driven by horny men idle around the often delectable whores as they expertly pose and coax Euros from them. De Aranoa's febrile, sensitive writing also finds poetry in the words spoken by Caye and Zulema, which sometimes break from street obscenities into something more yearning and, indeed, lyrical. I don't expect to hear a better music score this year than Alfonso Villalonga's panoply of moody rhythms and funkily sensuous songs, and Ramiro Civita's camerawork has a breathtaking immediacy.

Peña does possess some of the embattled, bruised power of the young Bette Davis and, without employing any obvious play for our sympathy, makes Caye's stubbornness and alienation deeply identifiable. To continue the iconic allusions, Nevárez evokes Garbo, with her impassive, slightly strange beauty and gorgeously stoic endurance of untold ills of man. The moment when she breaks from hard-bitten sullenness into an enchanting smile, as she talks about her cherished son back in the Dominican Republic, is typical of the mercurial nature of the film, which keeps you happily riveted. The entire bawdy squadron of hookers, who develop from bigotry to an uneasy acceptance of the foreigners in their midst, deserves applause for the wealth of comedy and street-smarts they impart. De Aranoa clearly loves them all and makes his feelings palpitatingly palpable.