Lion's Den Buoyed by Heroine's Nuanced Performance

Pablo Trapero's unpretentious prison drama wasn't exceptional enough to win the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes, but what's downright neglectful is that his star/producer/wife, Martina Gusman, didn't skulk away with a Best Actress prize. Entering catatonic and submissive (and actually preggers in real life), the Argentinean beauty boldly transforms as she's both hardened and softened over a few years of jail time. She's a jaw-droppingly credible presence as the anguished mommy-to-be Julia, discovered by police alongside the bloody remains of her baby-daddy and his lover. Sent to the slammer, though one less scary than the hellhole in Carandiru as it's populated by stroller mommies, Julia gives birth and is forced to raise her son under lockdown—clearly not ideal conditions for a growing kid. This bizarrely dreary milieu is unlike any other woman-behind-bars movie (Pam Grier completists might contest): Amid the hair-pulling tussles in the shower, fiery riots, and other genre clichés, there are Lamaze classes and kindergarten. With a lightly expressive touch, Trapero opens our eyes, but not wide enough to take in anything fresh or profound about the setting's psychological and sociological complexities. Once the film devolves into a drag-down fight for custody with Julia's mother, only Gusman's nuance saves us from a script that seems geared more toward screeching overacting.

 
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