By Ron Holloway | July 11, 2008
As films about women’s prison’s go, Pablo Trapero’s Leonera (Lion’s Den) (Argentine/Brazil/South Korea, 2008) doesn’t offer much new, save that this one in Buenos Aires is only for pregnant women whose children are about to be born. This factor alone lends Lion’s Den extra, and welcomed, authenticity in an otherwise familiar genre.
After the child is born in prison, permission is given to the mother to keep it with her up to the age of four, when a sometimes painful decision has to be made. Either the child is raised thereafter by another member of the mother’s family until the woman is released from prison, or it is given up for adoption. And that’s what makes this prison tale well worth seeing. Lion’s Den gets off to a shaky start when Julia, a university student – played by Martina Gusman, who also happens to be the film’s coproducer – wakes up on her apartment couch with blood on her hands. Dazed, and fully unaware that anything drastic has happened, she takes a quick shower and hustles off to the university. Upon returning home, Julia finds her lover-boyfriend lying dead of knife wounds in the bedroom. Next to him, also lying in a pool of blood, is her boyfriend’s seriously wounded gay lover, Ramiro – played by current Brazilian heartthrob Roderigo Santoro. When the police arrive, Julia is arrested – and accused of murder. Although she cannot remember exactly what had happened, she does know that she did not commit the murder. She argues that since she is pregnant, why would she want to kill the father? However, during the initial court hearings, Roderigo testifies against her. But since she is pregnant, Julia is not sent to a women’s prison for hardcore offenders, but to a half-way “lion’s den” until the date for the official trial is set.
At this point, Lion’s Den shifts into high gear as a film – for the actress-producer Martina Gusman is, indeed, pregnant. Over the next weeks and months, until the baby is born, the audience is invited to share her pregnancy-purgatory in this rundown prison. Further, her character begins to change. From a taciturn, stand-offish rebel who hates her unborn child, she slowly awakens to the thrill of childbirth – and then watches as Tomas grows into a personal treasure who needs all the help she can offer. Meanwhile, Julia’s estranged mother, Sofia, appears on the scene – played by popular Paris-based, Uruguay-born singer Elli Medeiros After neglecting her own daughter over years while living abroad, she, too, suddenly takes an interest in Tomas. An affection that doesn’t sit well with Julia. But fortunately Julia has hardened into a lioness ready to fight to keep her child by any means possible. Moreover, her fiery spirit has made friends in prison, among them a lasting friendship with Marta (Laura Garcia). Together, they hatch a scheme to get Julia out of prison. And Tomas away from the clutches of a domineering mother detested by Julia.
When the day of the trial arrives, Romiro saves his own neck by putting all the blame for the murder on Julia. As trials go these days in Argentina, and despite a veteran feminist lawyer arguing Julia’s case, she loses – and receives an 8-year sentence for manslaughter. At this stage of the game, Julia knows she cannot trust her mother to raise her child in her stead. So when Tomas spends some time out of prison with his grandmother, her nerves break – and she instigates a rebellion in prison to get her son back. The film ends as a fairy tale. With the help of her friend Marta on the outside, she waits for the day when visiting rights are allowed. Once outside of prison, she dupes her probation guard, hails a taxi, and heads for the bus station. There Marta is waiting to give her false identity papers to escape over the border.
Pablo Trapero, born 1971 in Buenos Aires, is a respected name in the Argentinean independent scene. His first feature, Mundo Grua (Crane World, 1999), the story of a youth’s dreams shattered by the Argentinean economic crisis, was invited to the Venice festival. El Bonaerense (2002), his second feature produced together with Martina Gusman, won critical praise in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes as a honest indictment of the Buenos Aires police force. Lion’s Den apparently owes much to Brazilian coproducer Walter Salles, who apparently brought Roderigo Santoro onboard. Martina Gusman’s performance in Lion’s Den is the glue that holds the film together from start to finish despite its lengthy two-hour run. Her last scene alone guarantees a favorable response at arthouse bookings. During an anxious ferry-crossing at an isolated border, we see her holding her breath as she counts the seconds to freedom and a new life.
– Ron Holloway
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