This 2019 Venice Film Festival Queer Lion winner, a fantasy set during Chile’s politically tumultuous 70s, never quite coheres
The Prince (El Principe) is the directorial debut by Sebastián Muñoz Costa del Río, for which he adapts a little-known 1970s novel by Mario Cruz from his native Chile. Set in a time of significant political change for the country, the story follows Jaime (Juan Carlos Maldonado) in prison after he commits a violent murder.
The penitentiary – within which the bulk of the film takes place – inverts the cliches of a gay man’s prison experience. Life behind these particular bars is fashioned as a homoerotic fantasy; inmates share bunks and rarely does a scene not feature gorgeous, nude men with their hands all over each other. To navigate this new realm, boyish Jaime is taken under the wing of a respected alpha known as “The Stud” (Alfredo Castro), who gifts Jaime with the moniker that gives this film its title. Naturally, Jaime finds himself at the centre of prison politics, in a battle for love and loyalty involving another alpha contender (Gastón Pauls).
The radical spin Muñoz places on the prison drama provides excellent foundations for a fascinating study of sex, violence, and power, and the hierarchy towards which all these factors contribute. This, unfortunately, becomes crowded out when the boundaries of consent are simultaneously ignored – namely in the way The Stud quickly claims Jaime as his own possession.
It also doesn’t help that the protagonist’s thoughts are inscrutable in the moments that matter the most. Scattered throughout the film are flashbacks to Jaime’s life before he entered the prison. Individually, they demonstrate the obsessive, jealous, and lustful aspects of his personality. But they fail to form a cohesive whole, further driving our impression of the character into the fog.
It is Castro’s performance that proves most compelling. His speech has a weathered, textured quality that indicates years of heartbreak and wisdom, and he snatches attention in every scene he’s featured in. Muñoz’s background in production design also ensures the physical space looks real; the prison is appropriately grim and feels full of history.
The gay utopia of The Prince certainly brings fresh ideas to a frequently represented setting. And if it is not memorable for its unique point of view, then it will be for its overabundance of graphic male nudity – a significant shift from English-language queer cinema. But particular elements of this story – first conceived almost 50 years ago – now feel outdated, and there is a jarring incongruity to the way Muñoz weaves radio broadcasts detailing Salvador Allende’s rise to power into his overtly fantastical world.
The Prince is available on home release and select digital platforms from 7 December.Where to watch