Julia, a young university student, wakes up one morning next to her dead lover and with bruises all over her body and face. It is unclear what occurred the previous night but she is sent to prison to await trial where it becomes clear she is with child. Sent to a prison wing for new and expecting mothers Julia must cope with the birth of her child while incarcerated and while also trying to fight for her freedom.
The Critics Say
“Part meticulous character study, part hyperrealist drama, Trapero’s film is as interested in documenting how such an institution functions on a day-to-day basis as he is in presenting the joys and pains of female cohabitation in such a confined space. His film also asks us to question whether it’s right that the young innocents should suffer the same punishment as their errant mothers.” – David Jenkins, Time Out
Original Title: Leonera
Director: Pablo Trapero
Cinematographer: Guillermo Nieto
Writers: Pablo Trapero, Alejandro Fadel, Martin Mauregui, Santiago Mitre
Runtime: 113 minutes
From its opening Pablo Trapero’s social-realist prison drama is laced with ambiguity, its protagonist Julia (Martina Gusman) waking in her bed bloodied and bruised, the source of her injuries left unexplained until long after she has showered the worst traces of them off her body. It turns out she woke next to a dead man and another lying injured next to him, their prone figures eventually revealed to us by a ruthlessly slow pan along the length of Julia’s apartment as she hysterically phones the police. It is some time after Julia wakes that she makes this call, blurring our ability to determine her participation in the violence, of which we see only the aftermath, a crucial uncertainty that influences much of the film. Trapero thrives on a drip-feed of revelation, right from the very first moment when Julia’s hand moves from her pillow to reveal a patch of dried blood, the director protecting his plot like a parent and his offspring.
Lion’s Den really only starts to reveal the extent of its grimness when Julia is charged with murder and sent to prison to await trial. As she is processed by the prison authorities it becomes clear she is pregnant, a revelation that turns Julia’s situation – and her story – on its head. She is sent to a wing for women with children instead of with the rest of the prison population, yet once again Trapero surrounds this detail in ambiguity so that when we see the first toddler running free between the prison cells the full horror of the situation has a profound impact. This, it becomes clear, is the crux of Lion’s Den and its point of greatest concern, the complex social and moral issues surrounding children born into incarceration.
It is, of course, a contentious issue, the fact that the liberty of children born in prison is compromised from the point of birth, retribution for the sins of the mothers visited upon their offspring by default. Lion’s Den is careful not to preach, however, instead exploring the subject from a very human perspective. One notable exception to this concerns the baptism of Julia’s baby Tomás, the symbolism of a religious rite concerned with the cleansing of original sin applied (perhaps ironically) to a literal situation in which a child is born into punishment. This baptism may represent Tomás’s means of divine absolution but his earthly liberty is still to be negotiated.
The emotional intensity of the film’s subject matter is emphatically complemented by the lead performance of Martina Gusman. She spends much of the first half in a somewhat vulnerable state, the shock of her situation perhaps overwhelming her, yet after the birth of her son she becomes extremely protective and feral in her anger at those she sees as responsible for her incarceration. She is at once compelling and upsetting to watch, the prominent star of a very difficult feature. The actions of her character are at times undoubtedly questionable, particularly during a conclusion that is typically muddied by uncertainty, but her belief in her motherhood is dauntless and fierce.