Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Lion's Den

Reviews - Lion's Den

Lion's Den

Reviewed By John Stakes

Lion's Den
Lion's Den
Perhaps last Sunday’ s film by Argentine new-wave director Pablo Trapero (remember his “La Familia Rodante” ?) should have been re-titled “Lionesses’ Den” , being set in the maternity wing of a women’ s prison in Buenos Aires and featuring a pregnant prisoner cooped up with an assortment of young mothers and their offspring.

Trapero’s wife Martina Gusman stars as Julia, a woman arrested for the murder of her boyfriend Nahuel and attempted murder of his friend Ramiro in her flat. Whilst still traumatised and unable to comprehend what has happened she is arrested and remanded in custody.

Her co-accused Ramiro blames her to save his own skin and is eventually acquitted for lack of evidence. We never learn of the true extent of Julia’s involvement but she is sentenced to ten years without jury trial. Whilst Trapero exposes questionable aspects of the Argentine judicial system, his gritty and very realistic film (which was shot in real prisons) concentrates mainly on Julia’s incarcerated life inside as she tries to come to terms with her plight and prison conditions.

“Lion’ s Den” is the latest example of Trapero’s concern for the lives of ordinary people caught up in situations beyond their control. Julia duly gives birth to Tomas the son of her dead lover, learns to cope with the grim and grimy conditions, and, just like the hero in last season’s gangster movie “A Prophet” , she is able to turn the harsh and restrictive regime to her advantage by engineering a prison riot to gain the attention and influence of the prison governor.

Trapero is meticulous in his depiction of day to day prison life and fully captures the feeling of the absence of general and personal freedom as we are shown many a door being guarded, locked and unlocked as his restless camera penetrates the maze of corridors, communal wash rooms and cell areas.

The shock of young children in prison is skilfully delivered as Trapero delays showing any of them until Julia has passed through the reception process and is approaching her cell when a lone toddler suddenly appears from a neighbouring cell and walks ahead of her along an otherwise empty corridor. The director forces us to question whether mothers should be held in custody at all, and whether young children should be saddled with the same conditions as their mothers particularly when over sixty per cent of female inmates are held without trial. We learn that these children may have to remain in prison for up to four years and are then forcibly removed from their mothers.

In Julia’ s case, her mother has tricked Julia by persuading her to give Tomas into her care briefly and then refuses to hand him back. This and the length of her sentence prompts Julia to plan her own escape, and, with the help of ex-con Marta, obtains false passports and eventually manages to cross the border (into Uruguay?) with her son.

Martina Gusman’s understated but nonetheless towering performance as Julia carries the film, but she is well supported by Laura Garcia as Marta. Gusman is called upon to display a full range of emotions from physical pain and acute anguish to touching tenderness (including it would seem coping with her own pregnancy during filming) so by the end we not only share but are made to feel we have lived alongside Julia’s ordeal.

Trapero skilfully avoids the usual prison drama clichés (e.g. the guards are not presented as vicious bullies at least in this part of the prison) and by using real prison staff and inmates the story feels more like a dramatised documentary than a fictionalised account of prison life. Perhaps Julia’ s eventual escape proved less troublesome than might have been expected but this never diluted our concern for her predicament and future.

Trapero’s movie has garnered several awards at Latin American Film Festivals and confirms his status as one of South America’ s leading directors. “Lion’s Den” is the first of three Argentine films to be screened this season, and on this showing the remaining two will be eagerly awaited.

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