Directed by Pablo Trapero
Those who don't know a lick of Spanish are sure to emerge from the Argentinean film Lion's Den having learned a few choice swears, as they are repeated over and over and also shrieked many times for emphasis. Most of the film takes place in a prison — specifically a cacophonous, crayon-scrawled ward of a women's prison where incarcerated mothers rear their small children, who remain in the jail up until they reach the age of 4. Lion's Den only has the initial appearance of a consciousness-raiser, though. Director Pablo Trapero doesn't seem all that interested in the welfare of the kids; they produce high-decibel tantrums in the background but become suddenly blank-faced and undemonstrative whenever they are brought briefly to the fore.
Though Trapero (also one of four credited screenwriters on the film) includes a purposefully elliptical account of the events leading up to his heroine's imprisonment and some obligatory scenes of legal process, he largely omits backstory and social context, choosing instead to focus on his writ-large subjects of motherly love and the hope against all odds of a better future. These quasi-themes are approached through the day-to-day of Julia (Martina Gusman), accused of murdering her boyfriend, Nahuel, whose child she gives birth to shortly after being locked away. Though a crime-of-passion blackout keeps her from remembering exactly what happened the night of the murder, she has strong suspicions involving Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), who was living with the two at the time. As justice continues to miscarry, Julia relies on the support of a fellow inmate (emotional) and her previously estranged mother (material).
Those more willing to forgive Lion's Den its noise might describe it as a showcase for the lead actress, Gusman. Her work is certainly capable, but the role calls for her to sustain such heightened emotional states for so long that her performance simply becomes exhausting to watch. As the movie dutifully makes its way down the prison-film checklist — copious cursing, fighting, and showering; static compositions for the architecture and agitated handheld for the confrontations therein — only the peculiar protocol of the lockup day care proves absorbing. Some cells appear to be furnished with cordless phones and TVs, and the children crawl up the metal bars as they might otherwise ascend a jungle gym. When one inmate invites another into her untidy cinder-blocked cell for tea, it seems all of a sudden as if this place has more in common with a college dorm than with the higher-security ward next door. The scenario of Lion's Den might raise any number of questions about something as specific as the Argentinean prison system or as universal as the best interests of children, but Trapero only seems interested in exploring the question "Isn't this babies-in-jail thing kind of messed up?"
Opens July 3