Lion's Den (2008)

 Cannes Film Fest 2008 (In Competition)—In “Lion's Den” (aka “Leonera”), Argentinean writer-director Pablo Trapero depicts life in a women's prison wing where pregnant mothers are allowed to keep their children until they are toddlers.


Trapero's previous films were “Rolling Family,” about a big family, and “Born and Bred,” based on a father' life, so it makes sense that the new film will be a about a mother.  These features form some kind a trilogy, and will be interesting to see them back-to-back.   Trapero has also directed a police story, “El Bonaerenese.”


The reaction to the film's world premiere in Cannes was mixed. Some critics felt that “Lion's Den” is too much of a genre picture–women behind bars—with all the conventions that go along, such as women fighting, cursing, pulling hair, and so on.  Other reviewers singled out the edgy and dominant performance of the protagonist, played by Trapero's wife, Martina Gusman, claiming that it elevates the picture above its melodramatic trappings. (Gusman and Trapero's son also can be seen in one scene).


The first scene suggests a sleazy thriller, in its depiction of a middle-class woman named Julia (Gusman), waking up to find two bloodied bodies next to her, her boyfriend, who's been stabbed to death, and his lover Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), who is wounded and still alive.  Failing to remember the events of the preceding night, Julia, the major murder suspect, is arrested along with Ramiro.


The setting then changes to a filthy prison in which all the inmates are female. After Julia is sent to the penitentiary, she gives birth to a son, Tomas. Bringing up a child in prison is difficult, but Julia understands that the only thing that matters to her is this new being that accompanies her now, that there is no life for her beyond that of her child. 


Julia is contrasted with two vastly different women, her fellow inmate Marta (Laura Garcia), who becomes her ally, and her estranged mother Sofía (Elli Medeiros), who turns out to be her opponent. One attempts to teach her how to be a mother to her child in the least appropriate place; the other wishes to take over rearing the child, so that he should grow up outside prison more normal conditions. 


In its good scenes, the movie centers on the battle of wills between Julia and her mother, which deals with the dilemma of what is better for the child, to be brought up next to his birth mother in prison, or without her but in freedom.  Most femme-drive melodramas (American included) are about tough working-class heroines, who are victims of men's wrongdoing and/or of their socio-economic circumstances, but in “Lion's Den,” the protagonist is middle-class and college-educated.


Trapero and his crew have tried to give the film an ultra-realistic look, shooting the story within a maximum-security prison, employing inmates and staff members as actors, and integrating them almost seamlessly with the professionals in the ensemble.  Using largely hand-geld camera, Guillermo Nietel, who's Trapero's reliable cinematographer, imbues the film with a fluent and engaging rhythm that helps the viewers get a closer, docu-like view of the yarn and its conflicted persona.


The film also benefits from the involvement of Brazilian director Walter Salles, whose new film, “Linha De Passe,” was also in competition.  Trapero's wife is credited as a producer on the picture, which is a co-production of Argentine, Brazil, and South Korea.