I've watched this 1975 film from Carlo Lizzani three times now and still can't quite get my head around it and whether it's offering serious social commentary on its subject, is exploiting it for sensationalist purposes, or – most likely on balance – a bit of both.
Certainly the first few moments pull no punches and make for decidedly uncomfortable viewing, as we get a grandmother pimping her purportedly 13-year-old granddaughter to passing motorists, with the girl exposing her breasts and pudenda before quickly moving to perform implied fellatio on the van driver who had thought he was only giving them a lift only a few moments earlier.
Their run-ins with a group of pimps who don't take kindly to incursions onto their turf forms a running thread through the remainder of the film, which presents a series of documentary-style reconstructions, each based on co-writer Marisa Rusconi's research.
The first of these case studies also works well, mainly because it seems more typical and credible. In it a naïve 16-year-old, Rosina, arrives in Milan from Sardinia. Her father died in an industrial accident, leaving Rosina to support the rest of the family. Being reluctant to marry a family friend several decades her senior, she has come to the city to take up work through her cousin. The job Rosina gets is, however, marginal at best, putting together bootleg tapes at piecework rates – if, that is, she even gets paid at all. At the weekend, another of the girls in the house-cum-workshop suggests that they go dancing. At the disco Rosina meets Salvatore, AKA Velvet. A pimp on the lookout for fresh meat, he turns on the charm and sweeps Rosina off her feet. By the time she realises his true nature, it is already too late...
The subsequent case studies have a tendency to be more sensationalistic and mondo-eseque. In one a girl from a good home, Gisella, is blackmailed into having relationships with men after she is photographed in a compromising situation. While one doesn't doubt that it could happen, it seems a somewhat inefficient and risky way of working compared to targeting others in Rosina's situation. In another a second respectable middle class girl prostitutes herself to express her contempt for her parents, before eventually confronting her father over his own liking for underage girls. Again, it seems too much like choosing the rarer specific case over the more routine and general one.
These later stories are also more explicit, with borderline hardcore footage of fellatio, pseudo-lesbian activity with a strap-on and penetration shots inserted into the narratives.
Insofar as this takes the film coming perilously close to itself exploitation what it is purporting to expose and condemn, it's difficult to know what director and co-writer Lizzani and his collaborators were thinking of here. Two possibilities do however spring to mind. One is that, like Salo as a whole or the final act of Di Leo's To Be Twenty, they are using a bait and switch approach, luring the spectator in with the promise of more routine exploitation pleasures before giving us rather more than we had bargained upon. Another is that it represents another part of Lizzani's political critique, that he wanted to universalise things more for the middle class audience than a succession of Rosina-type scenarios would have allowed for, with this allowing for a running theme of exploring and exposing the exploitative relationships inherent within capitalism society at all levels. (Or, to allude to another relevant but more straightfowardly generic title here, is it what have 'they' done to 'their' daughters, what 'you' have done to 'your' daughters or what 'we' are doing to 'our' daughters collectively?)
The young actresses look the age of their characters (“As far as make up goes, put on as little as possible – you always want to look younger than you are,” as Velvet instructs Rosina) making it the kind of film that it's hard to imagine someone contemplating making in today's climate and which, were it to somehow get backing, would in all likelihood still experience distribution and censorship problems; in this regard it is also worth noting that the Italian Raro Video release as Storie di vita e malavita omits the harder footage found in the Greek English-dubbed VHS as The Teenage Prostitution Racket.
Ennio Morricone provided the soundtrack and Franco Fraticelli was the editor.