Dir: Pablo Trapero. Argentina-South Korea. 2008. 113mins .
In his breakthrough film Crane World (1999), Pablo Trapero displayed his mastery at depicting wide open urban spaces and liberating patches of sky in his native Buenos Aires. Then, in Born and Bred (2006), he created a parallel world in nature, capturing the endless, intoxicating landscape of Patagonia. Now, with Lion’s Den (Leonera) he successfully and gracefully shifts in the reverse direction, creating a suffocating, claustrophobic environment within women’s prisons - specifically those that house mothers and their young children. This multi-layered film is so crisply shot and seductively executed that, despite its somewhat depressing story line, it could, like its clever protagonist, cross borders and find niche audiences in European and North American markets.
In recent years there has been a spate of prison movies from Brazil and Argentina. Probably the best known is Brazilian director Hector Babenco’s overblown Carandiru. Here, Trapero constructs an intimate setting, one in which the women - many of them real-life inmates - can bond, or fight, or come on to one another, but connect realistically in some fashion. Yet he does not attempt to make the setting neat or organised or easy to navigate. The cells and the common spaces feel messy, dirty - in other words, not art directed. Such a backdrop is essential to the storyline of a young, pregnant university student who, accused of murdering her lover, is unceremoniously taken from her reckless life of self-absorption and thrown into a dehumanising circle of hell. The payoff is that her journey is ultimately positive, her transformation so thorough that the narrative defies the decades-old cliches associated with a woman’s morphing.
Trapero has said that the starting point of the project was learning about laws in Argentina regarding female inmates and their offspring. When a child is four years of age he or she is taken from its mother and placed either with a relative or the Court of Minors. In addition, these children endure later traumas from having been shut in during their formative years. Although he keeps his camera (usually very close in) on his protagonist, Julia (Gusman) and the other incarcerated women, the toddlers are never out of sight, whether they are being pushed in strollers toward an in-house kindergarten or being suckled.
Besides the extraordinary visuals, with pans and tilts and traveling shots serving to emphasize the oppressive enclosed feel of the institutions, central to the success of Lion’s Den is the performance of Martina Gusman. Trapero’s wife, she has executive produced all of his films since El Bonaerense (2002), but has never before taken the top acting credit on a film. On paper such an arrangement smacks of a possible vanity production, even an irrational obsession with a partner that has, in the past, ruined many a film. Yet Gusman is perfect.
Early on she is withdrawn, without affect. As prison life, and the men who have ultimate power over her fate, begin to wear her down, she rises to the occasion. Now that she has a child, she has begun to develop a personality, and uses it to manipulate anybody who would take advantage of her plight, especially those who want to separate her from her young son, Tomas. They include her selfish mother, Sofia (Medeiros), who tries to trick her. Julia hides her uncanny ability to overcome considerable odds to get what she wants.
What propels Julia’s plight is a bit simplistic: her murdered lover, Nahuel, had brought his male lover, Ramiro (Brazilian actor Santoro), to live with them. Once the police get involved, the narrative becomes a somewhat facile ‘he said/she said’ conflict. Naturally neither Julia nor Ramiro cares to stay in prison. For all her faults, Julia is truthful; Ramiro is a slick opportunist and concocts a false tale implicating Julia in the killing. The court, comprised only of males, finds Ramiro innocent and Julia guilty, with a 10-year prison sentence hovering over her. Of course this means she will lose custody of Tomas.
It is a testament to Trapero’s social conscience that he applies his aesthetic know-how to a subject as tragic - and unaddressed - as that of kids growing up in cellblocks. Had a documentary film-maker deploying talking heads and some assorted prison scenes taken it on, the impact would be slight. Few who see Lion’s Den will forget its harrowing atmosphere, its sets full of barbed wire, railings, and other constraining barriers.
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