Lion's Den

Lion's Den


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

All of us have mornings when we wake up and take a moment to adjust to our circumstances. In Lion's Den Julia wakes up to find her hands covered in blood. She doesn't yell or scream. She blinks her eyes, moves around fuzzily, then gets up, washes it off, and goes to work. In the evening she calls the emergency services in tears. Her composure has broken down. The blood is that of her partner Nahuel and his boyfriend Ramiro. She can't clearly remember what happened. Neither can Ramiro; but though he's physically in a worse state than her, he's psychologically better, able to assess the situation. Julia came in with a knife, he says. He has to protect himself. So Julia, who is pregnant, goes to prison, still not fully aware of what's happening to her.

Some people go through their whole lives not fully aware of what's happening to them. As this poetic tale develops, we discover that Julia is not the sophisticated middle-class woman she might at first appear to be. She has spent her life simply reacting to the things that happen around her. As she adjusts to the prison environment and to her new responsibilities as a mother, something seems to be simmering inside her, close to boiling point. Will Julia discover that she has the power to act, not just to be acted upon, before it is too late?

The strength of Pablo Trapero's sumptuous film, Argentina's Palme D'Or nominee, is the depth and breadth of its considerations. This isn't the sort of linear work we're familiar with in modern cinema, despite that central storyline. It's all about tangents, details, small revelations which characters may not fully understand themselves.

Martina Gusmán's performance in the central role is note perfect, compelling. The camera stays close to her at all times, from that first moment of awakening when viewers might feel as if she can feel their breath on her face. Such a strong focus means that we never get a break from her struggles. Not when she's sobbing in the night; not when she's being abused in the showers, a powerfully ugly, de-sexualised sequence; not when she's screaming out in anger at the possibility of losing her son. It's an exhausting experience but it's undeniably powerful.

Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto eschews the usual rules of tough prison movies and gives everything a painterly look, shafts of light piercing the dark spaces between cells, every nuance of colour brought to vibrant life. This complements perfectly the sensual nature of the interactions between the prison's inmates, and Julia's own emotional approach to life. There's lust between some of the women, but there's also a deep love that goes beyond the sexual. Many have small children, allowed to remain among them until they're four. This creates an atmosphere where maternal and erotic love are blended, the bonds between the women themselves developing a fiercely protective, psychologically interdependent element. Their need for one another itself gives them a strength greater than any could have alone, and it's through this that our heroine gradually discovers her own power.

Prison films are always, inevitably, limited in scope. Certain details of story and character and familiar, predictable; there are not many surprises. But this isn't a simple film about clear cut innocence and guilt, nor does it fall back on the notion that faith or hard work will save the day, something most real prisoners would laugh at. It's a story where emotional truths are more important than legal ones, and it presents a bold challenge to a hardened masculine genre whilst carving out a space entirely its own.

Reviewed on: 25 Mar 2010
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Waking covered in blood in an apartment where one man is dead and another badly injured, with little memory and no alibi, a pregnant woman must learn to deal with imprisonment.
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Director: Pablo Trapero

Writer: Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Pablo Trapero

Starring: Martina Gusman, Elli Medeiros, Rodrigo Santoro, Laura García, Tomás Plotinsky

Year: 2008

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Argentina, South Korea, Brazil


London 2008
Viva 2010

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