If you think it’s hard raising a child as a single mother, try doing it in prison. Such is both the premise of and the extent of insight provided by Lion’s Den, Pablo Trapero’s makeweight arthouse offering which inexplicably earned a competition spot at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. When Julia (Martina Gusman) awakens in her Buenos Aires apartment to find her lover murdered and his lover wounded, she’s carted off to jail to await trial, but when it’s discovered that she’s pregnant, the authorities move her to a special ward for young mothers in which the inmates’ children live with them until they reach the age of four. Although the details of the crime are never clarified and Julia has no clear memory of what happened, she remains incarcerated for several years before her case comes to trial, during which time she gives birth, weathers the vicissitudes of prison life, and learns to raise her son. As portrayed by Trapero (and as shot in an actual jail), life behind bars is a typical assortment of shower fights, trips to solitary, and riots, but it also entails a fair amount of female solidarity, as evidenced by a mutually supportive relationship between Julia and Marta (Laura García), a fellow inmate with a slightly older child of her own.
Although the film is essentially contemplative (which no doubt leant it credibility on the festival circuit), there’s little here worth contemplating. Guillermo Nieto’s dimly lit, slightly grainy camerawork effectively captures the rot of the jail cells and Gusman turns in a game performance as the increasingly hysterical mother, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that it’s all empty posturing. The film’s observations about prison life rarely extend beyond what we know from any number of other movies and its potential political significance in exposing the effects of children being raised in jail is undercut by the filmmakers’ lack of interest in establishing much in the way of a social context for either Julia’s situation or the larger system—or in illustrating what those effects might be. By the time Marta is released from prison, thus eliminating the film’s one dramatically sustaining relationship, Trapero has little left to work with, so he and his screenwriters manufacture a round of overheated drama, filling the final third of the film with hysterical outbursts, prison riots, and kidnappings which allow Gusman to strut her stuff, but which only serve to point out the emptiness of what came before. In the end, the film’s only value may be to make foreign viewers aware, at the very simplest level, of the unique practices of the Argentinean penal system.