The alarm sounds and Julia (Martina Gusman) wakes up. She doesn’t seem to notice that there’s blood everywhere. Her pillow, her cheek, her hands — all are streaked and blotted with red. Julia showers, her movements revealed in extreme tight shots, her eyes closed against the pulsing water. When she heads out for her day as a university student, riding the train into downtown Buenos Aires, she presses her forehead against the window and begins to cry. Her trauma comes to a sort of foreground in a series of fragments: a blurry smudge suggests the train platform, figures rushing, more bloody close-ups. Where is she, you wonder, and what is she doing?
The “where” is also a question posed by the child’s song that opens Lion’s Den (Leonera): “Donde esta su casa?” the song asks. At first, Julia’s sense of home looks stereotypically skewed. A middle class girl who’s fallen in with skeevy characters, she’s allowed a boyfriend to move in with her, and shortly afterward, his boyfriend as well. Now, following some mighty mayhem, her apartment is a crime scene: cops takes notes and snap pictures of red-smeared limbs while she crouches against a wall, blood dripping behind her horror-movie-style. “Do you notice a gap between your thoughts and what you want to say?” asks a therapist. Julia looks stricken when she’s told that because of the severity of the crime, she will be incarcerated until her trial begins.
At this point Pablo Trapero’s film slows down, as does the pace of Julia’s days. The splattery whirlwind of plot pieces that gets her inside prison sets up basic parameters for confusion — her boyfriend is dead, his friend Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro) lives and is, like her, accused of murder. “You are not here because I want you here,” explains the warden as the camera follows Julia through dark aisle and clanging doors. “I don’t have an empty cot and I don’t go get you at your house. You know exactly why you’re here.” (If that last part is true, Julia is not letting on.) A brief strip search reveals that Julia is also pregnant, noticed. She’s not sure how far along she is, but the fact of her bump means she’s sent to a special cell block, where mothers and children live in a kind of community. “You’re free to walk around,” a guard tells her, but order is strictly maintained. “Si, senora,” Julia acknowledges. Her life is no longer hers.
This point is made emphatically and repeatedly. Shot inside an actual prison by Guillermo Nietel, the film spends long moments observing barbed wire and walls, as well as the interactions of women caught between their lack of futures and their children’s lives, just beginning. The penal system allows children to stay with their mothers until they are four years old. At that point relatives must be found, or the children head into state custody, a fate that’s categorically uncertain, but almost never good. Kids of varying ages sit on hips, ride in strollers, play on rudimentary slides in the yard outside, as the camera pulls out, slowly, to reveal the abject limits of their experience.
Her eyes dark and her cheeks hollow, Julia watches as women fight over their small spaces and cigarettes, pulling hair and slapping one another in the shower. She’s befriended almost immediately by her cellmate Marta (Laura García), whose own child reaches up to Julia with pudgy arms. While other inmates call her “blondie” and note her rawness, Marta offers helpful instruction and photos of her family. “Why are you here?” asks Julia. “‘Cause I’m poor, ’cause I’m a fucking fool, that’s why,” answers Marta, just before she offers some soothing maté tea. “You’re rich, aren’t you? If you have money, it’s a lot easier for you.”
On its face, Marta’s observation seems right. Julia has a lawyer hired by her mother, and a court date. But when her mother, Sofia (Elli Medeiros), comes to visit, the complications of Julia’s background begin to seep into her story. “How could this happen to you? How could you end up like this?” Sofia wonders, her voice rising as her tears start. “I feel so guilty.” Julia, having been in prison some months now, understands the possible meanings of this display, hardly private in this cell block. “Stop crying,” she urges. “Are you crazy? Control yourself.”
Julia’s newfound wisdom is in part a function of her new status as Tomas’ mother. Now, she realizes, she is no longer alone, that she must think of herself in context with her son. This doesn’t help her during a couple of uncomfortable conversations with Guillermo, who insists that he must look out for himself, and so tell a story in court that leaves her responsible for the murder. Though you never know who’s telling what truth, the consequences of Guillermo’s version are devastating: Julia is convicted and sentenced to 10 years inside, which in turn inspires Sofia to seek custody of her grandson, determined that Julia “can’t keep him locked up like a criminal.”
The question of Tomy’s custody is crucial, legally and morally. But if the movie — which maintains a remarkably nuanced visual register, for all the narrative melodrama — doesn’t come up a very convincing solution for this dilemma, it does underscore the dearth of good options. Systems of punishment can’t take into account contexts or histories, deceptions or prejudices. As Julia contemplates her life, now tied up forever with her child’s, she sees obstacles and restrictions. Her transformed perspective reveals that such limits exist in other forms and elsewhere, that her casa has never quite been her own.