The 70’s and 80’s may have spawned and subsequently flogged to death an entire sub-genre of exploitative films called Women-in-prison dramas, but just when we thought there’s nothing more left to ‘explore’, comes Argentinian director Pablo Trapero’s Cannes-nominated drama, “Leonera” [Eng. Title: Lion’s Den]. This one is not for fans of exploitation though – it is serious cinema – a gritty and thought-provoking essay of the human spirit, and an honest inquiry into the judicial system.
Julia, twenty five, is incarcerated for alleged involvement in the murder of her live-in boyfriend Nahuel. Also arrested is Nahuel’s lover Ramiro – badly injured, but still alive. While leaving us to ponder and draw our own conclusions over Julia’s own lifestyle, the film moves away to focus on her predicament instead – she is pregnant, and with a strenuous relationship with her mother living in France, almost alone. Her middle class upbringing hasn’t prepared her for prison life, and despite being placed in a lenient ward set aside for expectant and young mothers, her despair is palpable. But she does manage to make friends, give birth, and her mother too returns to Argentina to provide things for baby Tomás. But when the trial concludes with her conviction, Julia is forced to give up Tomás, and her mother is made the child’s guardian. Julia had fought tooth and nail for the child’s custody, but had lost all her appeals. She’s now only left with a drastic alternative to help regain her son, but will she go so far..?
Trapero has constructed a beautifully nuanced film that is much more than a straightforward story. Shot in real prison surroundings, a lot of effort had gone into portraying the drama as realistically as possible. True, there are cat-fights in the showers here as well, but it also highlights the loneliness among cell-mates – their earning for human touch and affection, and also the humanity of prison guards under less than ideal circumstances. More importantly, we’re shown what it feels like to be a middle class woman suddenly denied some of the civil liberties taken for granted, and the determination of a mother to be given the right to raise her own child in prison.
The star of the film undoubtedly is director Trapero’s wife Martina Gusman playing the part of Julia (she is also the film’s executive producer). Ms. Gusman was actually pregnant during part of its production, which adds a unique dimension to the film. Appearing in almost every frame, her contribution to the film’s artistic success is as much as the director’s wholehearted effort. The characterisation and screenplay are also at their most imaginative – there are scenes that are exquisitely developed, which, while not pivotal to the plot, nevertheless add rich layers to the narrative. This is an unqualified success for Pablo Trapero, and Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon.com 2-DVD Set [NTSC]
It includes numerous extras, including the making of, and some deleted scenes. My recommended choice, the set with which this film has been reviewed.
The Nudity: Martina Gusman, Laura García, and others
The film features several instances of nudity and breastfeeding from Martina Gusman who plays Julia, Laura García who plays Marta – her confidante and friend in prison, and also from assorted supporting cast during a shower scene.