Much of “Lion’s Den,” the Argentine director Pablo Trapero’s sprawling, unpredictable drama about a woman who gives birth in prison while awaiting trial for murder, was filmed inside maximum-security lockups in the province of Buenos Aires using real inmates and staff members as extras. Let me emphasize, however, that “Lion’s Den” repeatedly confounds expectations about its being a typical women’s prison movie fraught with the usual overtones of lesbian sadism and caged-heat prurience.
One of the more admired films at last year’s Cannes International Film Festival, “Lion’s Den” is neither an exposé of harsh prison conditions nor a weepy melodrama about a wrongly accused innocent redeemed by last-minute revelations of the truth. When first seen, the heroine, Julia Zarate (Martina Gusman, the director’s wife), appears to be a sullen, bleached-blond sybarite who awakens fully clothed one morning in a state of shock, covered with blood, and her apartment trashed.
After showering quickly she takes the train to work. It is only upon returning that she discovers the body of her live-in boyfriend, Nahuel, killed with a knife, and the wounded Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), Nahuel’s boyfriend, whom she later says Nahuel brought to live with them. No sooner has Julia taken in the carnage than the police burst in and arrest her on suspicion of murder. Examined in prison, she is found to be pregnant but can’t say for sure which one is the father, although she guesses it is Nahuel.
If “Lion’s Den” were a Hollywood film, the identity of the father of her baby, Tomás, would be determined, and flashbacks would reveal exactly what happened on a night of violence that Julia insists she can hardly recall. (Ramiro, who recovers from his knife wounds, gives an account that contradicts her incomplete, carefully rehearsed story and drives her ballistic with rage at his lies.)
Instead of raking over the past, the movie observes Julia’s personal growth during several years spent in a maternity cellblock. From a smoldering antisocial depressive she evolves into a popular, defiant inmate for whom motherhood gives purpose to a previously aimless existence.
Under Argentine law, according to the film, a child born in prison is taken at the age of 4 from his mother and placed either with a relative or the court. As the deadline approaches, Julia grows increasingly determined to keep Tomás.
Her mother, Sofia (Elli Medeiros), who has lived in France for the last 13 years, returns to Argentina. At first her appearance is a godsend. She brings supplies to Julia and her friends. But when Sofia contrives to assume custody of Tomás, Julia explodes and instigates what threatens to be a full-scale riot.
There are moments when Ms. Gusman, who physically resembles a less perfect Angelina Jolie, recalls Ms. Jolie’s character in “Changeling,” a woman who endures a nightmarish confinement in a mental ward. But Julia is not a fixed being like Ms. Jolie’s impossibly noble persecuted heroine.
For all its noise and mess, the maternity cellblock, strewn with toys and children’s bric-a-brac, is not a hellhole. In prison Julia bonds and has an affair with Marta (Laura García), a lean, craggy-faced mother of two who shows Julia the ropes and even after leaving prison continues to help her.
“Lion’s Den” cracks a smile in a scene scored to a pop tune in which a procession of mothers pushing strollers bring their children to a prison kindergarten. In another scene Tomás is shown climbing the prison bars like a jungle gym. Such lighthearted moments echo the antic spirit of Mr. Trapero’s best-known film, the wonderful 2004 comedy “Rolling Family,” about a clan’s road trip in a broken-down camper from Buenos Aires to a wedding in a town near the Brazilian border.
Although it is not a comedy, “Lion’s Den” is suffused with sense of life lived in the present. Even the grimmest moments are not exploited to instill fear and loathing. Once Julia accepts the reality of being in prison, the movie momentarily forgets its sense of time, and mother and child fare as best they can under trying circumstances.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Pablo Trapero; written by Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, Sanitago Mitre and Mr. Trapero; director of photography, Guillermo Nieto; edited by Ezequiel Borovinsky and Mr. Trapero; art director, Coca Oderigo; produced by Mr. Trapero and Youngjoo Suh; released by Strand Releasing. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Martina Gusman (Julia), Elli Medeiros (Sofia), Rodrigo Santoro (Ramiro) and Laura García (Marta).