Argentinean auteur Pablo Trapero’s Lion’s Den is a respectful and serious-minded women in prison film that exceeds the value inherent in its unique premise. Set within a maternity ward in a maximum security prison, the setting ensures that the movie manages more sociological interest than most of its ilk. I’m not sure that we’ve ever before seen this backdrop as the focus of a film, and that’s surprising, as it lends itself to some intrinsic drama and political commentary. Watching this, it’s obvious that there’s surely a great exploitation film to be made in this setting, but it almost immediately becomes clear that Lion’s Den is not that film. Trapero’s interests instead lie in examining the microcosmic society that exists in this cell block and turning his attractive young protagonist’s stay there into a physical and moral endurance test.
Indeed, for a prison film, there’s surprisingly little overt excitement here. Time and again, Trapero eschews the predictable pleasures of that genre, always opting for introspection and diffusion over dramatic force. The key scene might well be the prison riot, in which the camera seems less interested in the mindlessly raging prisoners than in heroine’s meeting with the warden, who argues for emotional control in the face of chaos. In that sense, this feels strongly like a companion piece to Trapero’s rookie police drama El Bonarense, with the gender roles and the side of the law that it’s operating on flipped. Both films demonstrate constant control from the director, resulting in a unique, low-key outlook, even in the face of the story’s most extreme situations.
Similarly, Lion’s Den locates a unique form of melodrama, since its heroine’s struggles don’t really seem centered in an unjust legal system, a corrupt prison, or the man who accuses her of her crime. Instead, most of the tension here arises out of a crisis of conscience. There’s much hand-wringing over whether or not the lead character will acknowledge or remember the events that led to her incarceration. It’s a decidedly interior approach to a seemingly sensationalistic story, bolstered by a solid, but guarded, central performance from Martina Gusman that gives the audience little to embrace. Trapero discourages the audience from easy identification, turning attention to the bigger picture, stressing observation over condemnation. Throughout, his direction is impressive, with constantly assured camera movements, and terrific use of his extras in his long shots, but few histrionics. The result is a film that confounds expectations, keeping its audience at an arm’s length, even as it courts interest through its gripping plotting.