Exploring female relationships in the maternity wing of an Argentine prison, Pablo Trapero puts motherhood at the heart of Leonera. Just don’t rattle her cage.
Welcome To The Dollhouse by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s no surprise Martina Gusman won several awards for her role as Julia in Leonera. It’s a tour de force performance of a young mother caught up in Argentina’s carceral system – part lioness, part nervous doe. She may act only in her husband’s movies, but still she gives a deeply moving portrait of a young bookseller thrown into the lion’s den, a prison wing for mothers and young children. While there are thematic comparisons with Pablo Trapero’s previous films, particularly Born And Bred in terms of post-traumatic isolation, disputed guilt and family strife, Leonera is not a political study of life behind bars or a psychological exploration of a woman’s crime of passion. Instead it’s about the bestial bond that links a mother to her son and the lengths she’ll go to to protect it. From the bloody claw marks on Julia’s back to her skittish walk down prison corridors, man’s animal nature is always just below the surface, superbly conveying Julia’s brutal maternal instinct, railing against her grandson-napping mother like a caged beast. In Leonera, the female of the species is most definitely more deadly than the male.
Bloody hell. That’s what Julia wakes up to one morning, bruises all over her body, her boyfriend ripe for hospitalisation and his male lover knifed to death. It’s perhaps convenient that neither Julia nor her boyfriend Ramiro can remember how they ended up ripping each other apart; her lawyer swiftly informs her of the most advantageous version of events. Throughout the film, the prison location recedes to the point of metaphor, and here the carnage she wakes up to is like a couple’s argument in extremis; no-one knows how it started or who’s to blame. As such the scenes between Rodrigo Santoro and Martina Gusman are stunning, with real human emotions flooding out of them as copiously as their tears.
But, as a prison, the lion’s den is hardly oppressive. In fact, some of the brightest moments are the jailside baptisms and Christmas parties that light up the film with their sheer joy. With free access into one another’s cells, antenatal classes and a creche for the children until they reach the age of four, the prison is an alternative matriarchal family; Marta cross-nursing Tomy or coming to Julia’s rescue when he won’t stop crying. Even the prison guards amuse themselves as child carers, one officer swinging Tomy back and forth on a prison door to keep him amused.
United in motherhood, they raise their children together, creating co-operative alternatives to the straight nuclear family. It is however the homosexuality in prison that strikes a false note. From Julia being hit on by horny Amerindian women to her unnecessary romantic liaison with Marta, the sexuality seems forced. With all those lion cubs running about it’s hard to believe all these straight women end up craving intimacy with a cell-neighbour. In fact, it’s homosexuality that ignites the pre-film inferno and infects the recommended defence plea; it’s implicit that without such a double betrayal, the violence wouldn’t have been quite so ferocious.
Despite the disturbingly powerful scene where Julia beats her pregnant belly, the violence that scores the film is unconvincing and unmotivated. Her one-woman riot against her mother makes great cinema, but this prison has not yet brutalised Julia into a caged animal. Whether it be the Silence Of The Lambs style swearing spurted at her by inmates, corpulent indian women fighting in showers or the riot that Julia begets when Tomy is taken from her, the aggression comes too soon to be believed.
Still, in the lion’s den there is no greater offence than breaking the mother and child bond; a logic perhaps weakened by Tomy’s eventual departure on his fourth birthday and the fact it is his maternal grandmother that takes him. Yet there is no sacred bond here between daughter and mother, played by a fantastically icy Elli Medeiros. They have little affection for one another, a generational conflict echoing perhaps youth’s break with the corrupt Peronistas of Argentina’s past.
For Tomy, the difference between prison and his grandmother’s apartment is slight. Abandoned to the housekeeper, he looks down at the park below, the balcony bars reflected in the glass window, still as much a prisoner as he was in the lion’s den. For Julia however, her sudden childlessness has made the prison unbearable. She will not allow anything to separate them, not even bygone crimes, so she gives her guard the slip during a home visit, managing to escape Argentina, her broken family and the past.
The final sequence, where Julia and Tomy cross the river marking an isolated border into territory unknown, is cinema at its purest. Unsure abut Julia and her motives, the scene manages to be highly emotive all the same, the camera tracking her long walk to freedom as we recede slowly back into Argentina, back into the lion’s den. Filmed inside a real prison with real inmates, Leonera is not your average jailhouse movie, full of warmth and maternal vigour. It might be a bit ramshackle round the edges, but it can still hold an audience utterly captive.
Leonera is released in the UK on 26th March 2010.