I saw Lion's Den at MSPIFF earlier this year and it opened in New York a couple of weeks ago. Although it is not slated to play in the Twin Cities again theatrically, it is well worth checking out on DVD. Here's the review that I put together for In Review Online:
Put a woman in jail and she is either a victim or a martyr. The brilliance of Argentinean director Pablo Trapero’s fifth feature film, Lion's Den, is that it succumbs to neither formula. Proof that careful restraint can be more powerful than forced drama, Lion’s Den is able to tread a fine line between manufactured storytelling and organic development.
Julia (Martina Gusman) is one of three people involved in a violent incident that leaves one dead. The film opens with Julia waking up disoriented with blood on her hands, literally. She takes a shower, goes to school and is arrested for murder. With one person's word against another, Julia takes the blame for what is being played as a crime of passion in a convoluted love triangle. Although that in and of itself is enough for a full-fledged thriller, it is only the whirlwind introduction to Julia’s impossible yet probable situation. While being admitted to prison, a blood test shows that she is pregnant. A mixed blessing, her pregnancy guarantees her a spot in the prison’s maternity ward.
This is where the film and Julia’s journey begins. Lion’s Den is not a thriller nor a mystery, but a rich drama about a young woman predicament. Julia must learn how to survive by completely different rules. Treading unknown waters, she has to navigate not only her new life as a prisoner but also as a mother. Neither pretty nor painful, Julia’s metamorphosis from adolescent twit to shrewd prisoner and mother happens as naturally as it does dramatically. Saddled with a young child and the fate of imprisonment, she struggles to find meaning in this limited existence. The script artfully dodges all the melodramatic traps hidden behind the subjects of false guilt, single mothers, and women’s prisons.
Martina Gusman gives a gut-wrenching portrayal of a woman refusing to give up. Her on-screen transformation that is both physical and emotional is one of the best performances of the year. In the same way Trapero avoids exploitation, Gusman (who, it is worth noting, is married to Trapero and very much pregnant in the film) never reduces her character to a stereotype.
Trapero cunningly omits details and refuses to give easy answers. Julia’s past is a mystery leaving us little clue if she is capable of the crime or deserving of the punishment. Elusive and ambiguous, the film never concludes with any clarity who has committed the murder. Julia’s actions are suspicious, and before we are fully vested in her character, our reasonable doubt is put to the test. Slowly over the length of the film, the issues of judgment—guilt and innocence, right and wrong—dissolve in favor of reason. Lion’s Den is far more concerned with examining other burdens to be concerned with that of proof.
Lion’s Den does its best as a film to embrace the ambiance of reality, shooting on location in a maximum-security prison and using actual inmates as extras. The two worlds of ‘realism’ and ‘film’ are contradictory bedfellows, but Pablo Trapero comes very close to creating a rare symbiosis. As a result, even the conclusion transcends cliché. While most films strive to engender the closing of a book after a final chapter, Lion’s Den’s final scenes are more akin to starting a new chapter.