Cage without a key
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.