If you thought raising a child as a single parent was difficult, then imagine trying to do it while living in prison…
‘This could be a rough ride’ I thought, settling in for a tale of woe and wasted potential, but while it achieves several things, it doesn’t take you to the dank Precious or A Prophet-like depths that I had been expecting.
For all the abounding artistry and ethical dilemma, this film fails to carve us open in the way that it probably intended to and as such, leaves us slightly unfulfilled.
The Lion’s Den (or A Childhood Behind Bars to give the film its unabridged title) is a understated tale of Julia, a young woman who wakes up in a blood-soaked apartment with only a half-dead man and a corpse for company. She has no recollection of what occurred but is taken to prison to await her trial.
However because she is pregnant, Julia is moved into a creche-like wing of the jail, where women and infants roam around in relatively salubrious surroundings that you wouldn’t expect to see in a tale of South American jail hardship.
Nevertheless, Julia is a haunted woman until her young son Tomas arrives to bring a touch of balance and meaning to her existence. Her baby also helps her form important relationships with the other women, but when her well-meaning mother turns up and takes Tomas away for a few weeks, Julia loses the plot and is confined to solitary etc.
A quick riot from her mates in the kindergarten block soon rectifies that situation, but Julia realises that her son will soon be leaving her forever (children can’t stay in prison after the age of four) and when the judge sentences her to an extended sentence, the time comes for her to decide what lengths she will go to to stay with Tomas.
This is by no means a bad film. Indeed in several ways it is a very good one; Martina Gusman’s performance in the central role is excellent and Pablo Trapero is a poignant director who paints a grainy prison environment with some skill.
But despite several award nominations, the piece remains simply a wandering yarn. There are no antagonists to be seen – the prison warden is a nice bloke, Julia’s prison mates are helpful and even the judge who sends her down is pretty likable.
When we add the annoying ambiguity of whether the principal character is actually guilty or not to the pretty mediocre hardships she is faced with, it’s hard to be too enthusiastic for her plight.