Julia (Martina Guzman) wakes up, and it's clear things aren't right; there's blood on her hand, bruises on her body. She showers, dresses, goes to school, comes back home ... and realizes just how wrong things are, with a dead man on the floor of her kitchen and another badly-wounded man near death. She's arrested. Taken to prison. The charge is murder. She's alone. She's frightened. She's pregnant. She'll be kept in the special ward for pregnant prisoners or mothers who already have had their children, incarcerated along with them. Julia stands in her cell, in shock and in silence; on the wall behind her, you can see a child has drawn a house in crayon, bright red on the grey cinderblocks. Directed by Argentina's Pablo Trapero, Lion's Den (Leonera) is an impressively yet quietly assured film, one that takes its time and makes us live along with its characters. There's a rough-hewn realism in Lion's Den, but there's also a subtle lyrical quality to it; the performances are impressive but unforced, the camerawork contemplated without being showy. Julia is helped through her early days in prison by fellow prisoner Marta (Laura Garcia), who's resigned to her imprisonment; asked how she got there, Marta shrugs: "I was poor, and I was a fool." Julia has her child -- a boy, Tomas -- and soon her mother Sophia (Ellie Medieros), who's been living abroad for the past 13 years, is back in the equation. We quickly get a sense of who Julia is; she's an ordinary girl, a little sheltered, who's made a very large and completely irrevocable mistake. We get a sense of Sofia even more quickly; with her elegantly casual clothes and a tattoo of a star on the back of her hand, Sofia's a bohemian who became a bourgeois.
And that clumsy explanation of the plot makes Lion's Den sound far more rushed, and far more obvious, than it actually is. Trapero isn't afraid of silence, or of space; the film simply unfolds, with time passing as it does in prison, empty hours becoming lost days. We're told that Julia will have possession of Tomas until he's four, and then he'll be placed with a relative or with the court. Julia and Sofia have to figure out a hard-edged problem: Prison is no place for a child to grow up; prison is where his mother is. When Julia realizes that her mother's pulling strings to gain custody of Tomas, she's heartsick, furious, broken: "My child is all I have." But is that reason enough for him to grow up in a jail?
Guzman (who is not only director Trapero's partner but was also actually pregnant during some of the shooting of Lion's Den) makes Julia come alive for us. Lion's Den could have been much more talky, much more "dramatic," much more obvious ... and that film wouldn't be nearly as good as the film we're given here. A scene of Tomas playing in the only world he knows, using prison bars as a child in the outside world would monkeybars, is quiet and sad and gentle and haunting. There's four credited writers on Lion's Den, including Trapero, but the finished film is never over-written or too carefully considered; there's something fresh and vulgar and vital to the film, and it's, for the most part, refreshingly unsentimental. (For example, it's worth noting that Julia's most successful, grown-up romantic relationship in her life ... happens in prison.) Many of the film's scenes aren't conveyed in the dialogue but in smaller physical performance moments: A touch of a hand, a tilt of the head.
Some press members at Cannes were suggesting that the film's finale felt out-of-place with the rest of the film, and suggested that producer Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) may have influenced the tone and tenor of the last few scenes. But I didn't find the final scenes incongruous or fake in light of what had gone before, and the film's ambiguous enough about what happens next to let you imagine what the next stage in Julia's life is going to be like -- and good enough throughout so that you actually do think about her future. It's hard to imagine Lion's Den getting picked up for distribution in America -- it's a little too raw and flat for any audience but the most devoted foreign film art house crowd -- but, it's early in the festival, and Gusman's performance is so strong and impressive that it guarantees people will be speaking about it as one of the standouts of this year's fest.