‘La Puta Vida’ is a tragicomic Uruguayan treat

    This little gem of a film is the toast of its native Uruguay, and it’s not difficult to see why. All at once, it’s a quirky “working girl” comedy, a strong morality play against corruption and the sex trade in Barcelona, and a gut-wrenching, tragic drama. There’s literally something for everybody in “En La Puta Vida,” — provided, of course, that “everybody” is over 18. You didn’t think that a film whose untranslated title means “In the Life of a Whore” would be without a healthy dose of sex, did you? Actually, there is a surprisingly small amount of sex in “En La Puta Vida,” though it is used as a device for the film’s best laughs in its opening scenes before such small diversions are brushed aside and the drama unfolds.

    And it is in this drama where “En La Puta Vida” really succeeds. Based on a true sex scandal that rocked Uruguay in 1992, the film follows the sometimes humorous and often soap-opera tragic adventures of Elisa, a single mother whose dreams of a beauty parlor and food for her children cause her to enter the seedy world of prostitution. Of course, things being what they are, she is soon trapped with abusive pimp/ex-lover Placido in Barcelona as a sex slave with no hope of returning on forged papers.

    Newcomer Mariana Santangelo brings a manic intensity to the role of Elisa, single-handedly carrying the film. Santangelo’s Elisa is somewhere halfway between “Amelie” and “Tank Girl,” an incredibly spunky character whose unusually bright outlook and upbeat sensibilities make for a nice contrast to the dreary surroundings and situations she finds herself in throughout the film. Also, soap opera star Silvestre’s depiction of cold, down-to-earth Placido provides a nice foil for Santangelo’s sensibilities. A colorful cast of extras (including the mandatory crowd of prostitutes and a gang of rough Brazilian transvestites) keeps the story interesting.

    Using all of these elements, director Beatriz Florez Silva masterfully takes the audience on a torrid journey through the international sex trade, using soap opera-style theatrics to expose the evils committed against women to this day. This is obviously a very personal film for both Silva and Santangelo, for together their attention to detail gives the film an urgent quality, the type of film that incites its audiences to act.

    “En La Puta Vida” is only one of the many films playing for “Cinema En Tu Idioma,” a monthly showcase of Spanish-language films sponsored by the San Diego Latino Film Festival. “En La Puta Vida” has a special one-week only engagement from May 14 through May 20 at Madstone Theaters at Hazard Center.

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