Lion’s Den (2008): Pablo Trapero’s Prison Tale, Starring Martina Gusman

Written and directed by Pablo Trapero, Lion’s Den competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The film offers a unique if not altogether engaging glimpse into the bizarre penal experience of convicted pregnant women and mothers in Argentina.
While the performances are technically extraordinary, particularly the one given by Trapero’s real life wife, Martina Gusman, in the starring role, as is the filmmaking in general, there is a psychological distance never bridged between the viewer and main character that would have made the film more deeply affecting. All of the pieces are there, from the probably unfair incarceration to the deep bond between mother and child, but somehow the hope that the movie is going to deliver a solid emotional punch is never realized.
Trapero is clearly an accomplished filmmaker, and his scenes detailing life in prison, most of them shot in an actual penitentiary using real inmates, have a gritty, documentary-like tone that fortunately abandons any celluloid idealization. The movie strays from the common prison clichés of lesbian romance or brutality, or a formulaic who dunnit, and offers instead a character story of an initially emotionally numb woman named Julia, played by Gusman, who, possibly wrongfully charged of murdering her live-in boyfriend and injuring his male lover on the side (we never find out the truth), is sent to prison to await trial, and there is discovered to be pregnant and placed in a sort of minimal security group cell block of other incarcerated women who are pregnant or have young babies. Apparently in Argentina, women sent to prison are allowed to keep their children until the age of four, at which point the child must be placed with a relative or sent into foster care.  So while awaiting trial, Julia gives birth and raises her son, Tomas, in prison over the course of almost four years.
Julia at the beginning of the movie is completely closed down to the world, so much so that we are expected to believe she would wake up, shower and dress for work without realizing there are two bloody male bodies lying in her small one bedroom apartment. With the birth of her son and subsequent scenes of him growing through the years with her in prison care, she evolves into a fiercely protective mother willing to stop at nothing to be with her child. In conflict with her commitment to her child is her estranged mother’s belief that Tomas would be better off in her care in the outside world, free to grow and learn away from bars.  When her mother takes Tomas right before his fourth birthday to the doctor for an illness that can’t be cured in prison but doesn’t ever return him to her daughter’s care, Julia begins a quest to be permanently reunited with her son that lasts over three years but ultimately resolves in her favor.
The real failure of Lion’s Den is that it doesn’t allow the viewer any back story to Julia’s character. We meet her in an extreme set of circumstances and learn the shallowest reality of her highly dysfunctional relationship with the murder victim and only once, as a throw-away line late in the film, hear a mention of her absent mother and sick father while growing up. But her character is so catatonic to the sudden losses of freedom and choice in the beginning that it begs the question how someone could become that nonreactive and unassertive, yet Trapero never, to the detriment of the film, offers an answer. Without building a solid foundation to Julia’s character through narrative or dialogue, Trapero fails to achieve the defined arc he set out to illustrate.   Additionally, the choice to have Julia’s character finally galvanized into an actualized existence by the bond with her child is such a universal archetype that it doesn’t allow for the kind of individualization that the audience needs to build sympathy for Julia, and not just a mother. It comes across as less a story of personal growth than of just simple human instinct come to light. Furthermore, Trapero weakens the believability of strength of the relationship between Julia and Tomas when he shows us several scenes of Tomas perfectly happy away from the care of his mother, though to be fair, Tomas seems quite happy with Julia as well.

But Lion’s Den is not without its strengths, from the proficiency of the direction, cinematography, and complete immersion by Gusman into Julia’s character, but the lack of character insights holds the movie back from being as arresting as it could have been. It is a solidly well-made and watchable film, and there are touching moments, as when the audience sees Julia bond with the other mothers and children in her cell block, and fascinating glimpses into a foreign penal system, but overall it is a frustrating experience because the movie could have easily been so much more gripping if only more of Julia had been revealed.


Reviewed by Laura Gatewood