Leonera (Lion's Den) -- Film Review



Festival de Cannes, In Competition

CANNES -- Admittedly, its women-in-prison story is not an instant attraction, but it doesn't take more than a few minutes into "Lion's Den" to realize 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 girl who finds herself pregnant and in prison for murder. Remake rights could be attractive, though this Spanish-lingo 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 both 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 four. Trapero's fascination with the knitty-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 own 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 Trapero's films since "El Bonaerense" and who also played in "Born and Bred," 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 own 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.

Unexpected touches include a sprightly opening children's song and an engaging parade of baby strollers through the prison as the proud moms escort their offspring to kindergarten class. Guillermo Nieto's hand-held camerawork mimics Julia's nervous energy and keeps the audience locked up along with her, working in symbiosis with Federico Esquerro's forcefully realistic sound design.

Cast: Martina Gusman, Elli Medeiros, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: Pablo Trapero
Screenwriters: Alejandro Fadel, Martin Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Pablo Trapero
Executive producer: Martina Gusman
Producers: Pablo Trapero, Youngjoo Suh, Walter Salles
Director of photography: Guillermo Nieto
Production designer: Coca Oderigo
Costume designer: Marisa Urruti
Music: Rupert Gregson-Willaims
Sound: Federico Esquerro
Editor: Ezequiel Borovinsky

Matanza Cine (Buenos Aires), Fine Cut, Cineclick Asia (South Korea), Patagonik (Argentina), Videofilmes (Brazil)
Sales Agent: Ad Vitam, Paris

No MPAA rating, 113 minutes