IT'S A FAMILIAR, satisfying scenario in books, films, and life: A tear-stained heroine sheds her troubled past, leaving painful memories behind. It's always something like... I left him; left that town, never to look back.

But Paulina Cruz Suarez -- the heroine of Vicky Funari and Jennifer Maytorena Taylor's documentary, Paulina -- does look back. Armed with a video camera and tremendous courage, Paulina, now a maid in Mexico City, returns to the dusty Mexican town where she was halfheartedly raised and then traded to the town's powerful cacique (a cross between a mayor, slumlord, and Mafia don) for a patch of land and not much else. Mauro de la Cruz, the cacique, abused and raped her throughout her adolescence.

"My body is like a jigsaw puzzle," Paulina explains earnestly. She hopes that confronting her past and the parents who betrayed her will help her sort through the jumble of mismatched pieces, and become a more complete, intact woman.

The subjects of the present-day interviews in Paulina are the most infuriating: When asked about Paulina's childhood, her father, Facundo, has a distorted, nonchalant memory, refusing to acknowledge his daughter's immense past suffering. Paulina's mother, Placida -- now an old woman with cracked skin and a grim expression -- can only recall her daughter's bad behavior, shrugging it off without admitting the reasons behind it. In reenactments, Placida is a wispy teenaged mother who, along with the other immature mothers in town, appear hardened and apathetic, somehow viewing prepubescent girls (including their own daughters) as coquettish competition for "their men."

What's so touching about Paulina is how fair and forgiving she seems, narrating and guiding the camera through her past with amazingly little anger or resentment. It becomes obvious with every anecdote and confessional that although she can never feel fully healed, Paulina has truly scrubbed off the bitterness of life in that little town, where love and tenderness for this particular girl was completely out of the question.

Paulina plays as part of ¡MIRA! The Latino Film and Video Festival.