Cage without a key

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

RE­CEIV­ING ITS Cannes pre­miere a full 12 months be­fore A Prophet, this skull-jud­der­ingly well acted, in­con­gru­ously good-looking Ar­gen­tinean film now plays like a distaff re­sponse to Jac­ques Au­di­ard’s adored prison drama. Pablo Trap­ero’s film also deals with the hor­rors as­so­ci­ated with in­duc­tion into the pe­nal sys­tem. It has sim­i­larly equiv­o­cal points to make about the ef­fects of in­car­cer­a­tion. Un­like the French film, it doesn’t quite turn into a thriller, but the action is never less than grip­ping.

Lion’s Den be­gins with Ju­lia (Martina Gus­man) wak­ing up grog­gily to dis­cover her­self cov­ered in blood. It tran­spires that her boyfriend is ly­ing dead in a nearby room be­side an­other se­ri­ously in­jured man. Ju­lia is ar­rested for the mur­der and, dur­ing ques­tion­ing, we learn that she is sev­eral months preg­nant.

The film then re­solves it­self into three strands: Ju­lia’s ef­forts to get by in the prison; her at­tempts to prove her in­no­cence; and her strug­gle to re­tain cus­tody of the child.

Though oc­ca­sion­ally a lit­tle too fresh looking, Gus­man gives an as­ton­ish­ing per­for­mance. As the story pro­gresses, she grad­u­ally, sub­tly al­lows her fea­tures to form into ever more painful con­tor­tions of des­per­a­tion. Prime among the pres­sures is her own ap­par­ent con­fu­sion about what hap­pened on the night of the killing. She knows the other man – her boyfriend’s lover – has lied to the po­lice, but she’s not en­tirely cer­tain of her own in­no­cence.

Trap­ero strikes just the right bal­ance of flair and re­straint in his ap­proach to rep­re­sent­ing the prison. Shoot­ing in a smoky brown, mak­ing use of just one bravura marathon take, he gets across both the aw­ful­ness and the un­ex­pected joys of a jail in which chil­dren ride tri­cy­cles around squab­bling drug ad­dicts.

Like A Prophet, Lion’s Den ul­ti­mately comes to some trou­bling con­clu­sions. In a sim­i­lar way to the hero of the Au­di­ard piece, Ju­lia is de­based and hu­mil­i­ated by her ex­pe­ri­ences, but even­tu­ally is trans­formed into a stronger, more ac­com­plished hu­man be­ing. There’s no moral in this story.

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