Lion’s Den (Leonera)

Argentina (2008) Pablo Trapero

A young university student Julia Zárate (Martina Gusmán) awakes one morning in a haze, ignoring the blood on the bed and on her face and heads off to school as normal. When she gets home she finds the dead body on the kitchen floor and another man near death. When the police arrive they arrest Julia and put her in a special prison ward for pregnant women and new mothers where she eventually gives birth to a son, Tomás. Brining him up in the prison is tough but things become extremely combustible for Julia when her mother Sophia (Ellie Medieros) returns from abroad and takes Tomás home for a short time only to decide to keep him with her.

Pablo Trapero literally throws his actress/producer wife Martina Gusmán into the lion’s den by filming this in real prisons with real inmates taking on supporting and extras roles. Argentina’s entry for the 2009 Foreign Language Oscar is a gritty and eye opening tale of a woman trying to cling on to the one positive thing she has in life, her son, regardless of what is best for the child. Of course there is a moral question her as to whether the child should be with its mother or if the child is better away from such a volatile and unhealthy atmosphere. Trapero and Gusmán have no intentions of answering this question but do spark the debate with this film and let the viewer see both sides of the story to ponder the case for themselves.

The initial conceit of the story is whether Julia did actually commit the murder she is accused of. The fact she could get up, ignore the blood everywhere and carry on with her day as normal without batting an eyelid until she gets home later puts a huge question mark over her mental state – was she drunk, on drugs or was it a mental block as a result of shock and trauma? Since she is shown mostly in a big coat for the first few scenes we have no idea Julia is pregnant until she is forced to disrobe in prison (Gusmán was actually pregnant in real life for some scenes).

The actual pregnancy is rushed though until Tomás is born via C-section which is Julia’s biggest test of readjustment thus far during her incarceration. Thankfully she has the support of the other women including next door neighbour and mother-of-two Marta (Laura García), with whom Julia has a restrained but very tempting Sapphic relationship (at least on Marta’s part). Later on it is revealed the dead man was the father of the baby while the injured man, Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), Julia hopes holds the key to her acquittal.

The moral dilemma of this tale for some might be the fact that the single mothers separated from their offspring are criminals makes them unsympathetic characters, yet they still may not deserve to be apart from their kids. While many of the inmates never reveal their crimes and often behave in familiar “prisoner” fashion they are all caring mothers and are generally a tight knit community.

When Sophia eventually persuades Julia to let her take Tomás out of prison for a few days only to return a few days later with a lawyer but no Tomás, Julia flips out earning herself a trip to solitary confinement. Upon being let out, Julia demands to see the head warden but is refused, so her fellow mothers/inmates use this opportunity to starts a riot partly in support of Julia and partly because, well, I think you know where I’m going with this.

Julia’s character is one of what appears to be an irresponsible, immature young bohemian woman whose mistakes force her to grow up very quickly. Without Marta’s support – and unwanted advances which are tempered to become a “special friendship” – Julia would most certainly have crumbled early on; after the arrival of Tomás, Julia now has another person to help her survive behind bars, quickly becoming protective of her son while trying to give him a “normal” upbringing under the circumstances.

Young Tomás also seems to acclimatise to life inside as shown in a scene where he is climbing on the barred cell door and one of the warders swings it for him. But later when he is outside with Sophia, Tomás adapts to playing in more comfort, although he is seen watching the other kids outside in a nearby playground, either bemused at seeing the outside of a building or pining to join the kids in their freedom.

It is these subtleties which make a huge impact on the viewer insofar as what is best for Tomás, putting a great case for both sides of the argument. Similarly, Trapero uses such subtleties with the adult cast, allowing just a simple look, gesture or cuddle to convey the emotion of the moment. Dialogue therefore is quite sparse unless necessary and the use of non-actors and a documentary style camera work gives the film its naturalistic and raw feel.

Martina Gusmán’s central performance is again an astounding essaying of the troubled Julia, whose journey and maturity is more than the few image changes to denote the passing of time, we literally see Julia grow before our eyes to someone unrecognisable from the addled girl we meet at the start of the film – but we are left to judge the actions of the grown up Julia as the end credits roll.

Lion’s Den is a daring and unsentimental film which shows Pablo Trapero, and to some extent Martina Gusmán, as brave and unique voices in modern world cinema which deserve to be heard by all.