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 cliche, and is proof that careful restraint can be more powerful than forced drama. 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 her own, Julia takes the blame for what is being spun as a crime of passion spurned by a convoluted love triangle. This premise in and of itself is enough to launch a full-fledged thriller, but it’s only the beginning: While being admitted to prison, a blood test shows that Julia is pregnant. A mixed blessing, since her pregnancy guarantees her a spot in the prison’s maternity ward.
Lion’s Den is not a thriller but a rich drama about a young woman’s life-changing experience, as Julia must learn how to survive and adapt in prison, and she has to do so not only for herself but for her unborn child as well. And Julia’s metamorphosis from reckless adolescent to shrewd prisoner to concerned mother happens naturally, as Trapero’s script dodges the usual melodramatic trappings of its heightened subject. Gusman likewise avoids exploiting her character’s extreme circumstances for emotional manipulation, and never lets her character become a stereotype. The actress delivers one of the best performances of the year and, it’s worth note, was actually pregnant during the shooting of the film. Trapero omits details and refuses to give easy answers: Julia’s past is a mystery and the film offers little clue as to if she is culpable for the crime she’s accused of or deserving of its punishment. But Lion’s Den is far more interested in Julia’s more immediate struggles to be concerned with what happened prior. At its best, the film captures a gritty reality, shooting on location in a maximum-security prison and using actual inmates as extras. In this sense, the film meshes reality and fiction, and achieves the rare successful fusion of the two. In addition, the ending transcends cliche; where as most films arrive at a conclusion that engenders the closing of a book, the final sequence of Lion’s Den is more akin to the start of a new chapter.