Admittedly, "Lion's Den's" women-in-prison story is not an instant attraction, but it doesn't take more than a few minutes into it to realize that this film is several cuts above the genre standard.

Versatile Argentine helmer Pablo Trapero shakes off the leisurely lethargy of his recent "Born and Bred" in a riveting, high-pitched drama blessed by the extraordinarily edgy performance of actress-producer Martina Gusman as a middle-class college coed who finds herself pregnant and in prison for murder. Remake rights could be attractive, though this Spanish-language film co- produced by Argentina, Brazil (with the involvement of Walter Salles) and South Korea works perfectly with its own authorial blend of police procedural, documentary realism and engrossing drama.

Julia (Gusman) wakes up one morning beside two blood-covered bodies. Her boyfriend has been stabbed to death, and his male lover, Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), is barely alive. Julia, pretty beaten up herself, can't remember what happened, and she and Ramiro are arrested on suspicion of murder.

This lightning-swift opener is an able hook that ushers viewers into the main body of the story, which takes place in the filthy but colorful chaos of a special prison for female inmates with babies and small children. On the outside, it could pass for a friendly place, if every mother didn't know that her child will be taken away when he or she turns 4. Trapero's fascination with the nitty-gritty horrors of this open-cell Third World jail — whose immense dimensions are not revealed until the last scenes — link it to a long tradition of Latin American cinema, not least his police story "El Bonaerense."

As important as the prison is as a backdrop, with its cursing, lustful, hair-pulling inmates and their hordes of tiny tots, Julia remains a solid axis for the story. Gusman, who has been involved on the production side of all of Trapero's films since "El Bonaerense," has a modern intensity that blows away the rest of the cast. She is never banal as she evolves from a helpless victim who hates her unborn child to a survivor who finds happiness in little Tomas once he is born. When her estranged mother (Elli Medeiros) suddenly turns up and tries to take him away from her, Julia brings out her claws and makes the toughness she has learned in prison pay off. (partialdiff)