Mother under siege: Pablo Trapero's "Lion's Den," playing SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki, finds fierce maternal instincts behind bars.

'Lion's Den' and '24 City'

Susan Gerhard July 31, 2009

The best filmmakers working in the neorealist tradition today—the Dardenne brothers, Kelly Reichardt, Ramin Bahrani—turn the ordinary into the extraordinary with deceptive ease. Argentinian director Pablo Trapero has joined them with a growing list of films whose protagonists battle the pressures of the everyday in stories that turn out to be phenomenally unique.

He gained public attention at festivals, including the SF International, in 1999 with Mundo Grua (Crane World), a 16mm black-and-white character study of an ex-musician with an obesity problem attempting to find work in construction. His demons were beef and pasta and his charms, against a wide-open South American sky, were many.

Later films veered off the neorealist track with delight, adding a greater number of professional actors, richer color schemes, and increasingly inventive scenarios—among them, a locksmith caught up in the politics of policing in El Bonaerense (2000), a collection of relatives making a long-distance trek in a camper as Familia rodante (Rolling Family, 2004) and an interior designer sent to the far reaches of the universe in Nacido y Criado (Born and Bred, 2006). But the heart of a neorealist remained: The films won followers less for tight plotting than for their careful observations of the everyday.

His latest to reach the U.S. (playing the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki), Leonera (Lion’s Den), begins with a situation well outside the realm of routine: A woman with darkly shadowed eyelids and a blonde-locked mane wakes from her pillow to reveal blood on her hands, as well as in her kitchen, where two dead bodies lie. It’s only once the woman—Julia, played with stern grace by Trapero’s wife and producer, Martina Gusman—is booked and in jail that the film’s real story begins, however. Julia is pregnant, and will give birth to and raise her child behind bars. The murder will remain a mystery, while the narrative shifts focus to one of the most universal and ordinary experiences of all, the bonding between a mother and a son.

Trapero’s cinematography takes great pleasure in filming the sensuality flowering within the close quarters of a prison—contrasting a baby nursing on a mother’s breast with the bars holding both in place, enjoying the contradictions of children at "play" inside the concrete jungle of a jail yard, and revealing the intimacy between women lost in a tender kiss within a web of surveillance. It’s a testament to the calm, sure pulse of Trapero’s camera that even an eventual prison riot in the children’s ward unfolds without a whiff of camp.

The drama here is mostly offscreen, in visits from Grandmother, who begins to insert a wedge between mother and son for the sake of the child. Indeed this social issue, Trapero has said, was the inception of the film: Is it best for children like these to be raised under the confinement and stress of prison, or be taken from their mothers and let loose in the wide world? One particularly ordinary scene encapsulates the conflict and turns the everyday on its head: Grandmother takes the boy to the zoo, where the until-now-incarcerated child doesn’t seem to quite enjoy watching the caged elephants going about their daily ablutions. He will be tested by psychologists and painful decisions will be made.

In a very neo-neorealist twist, the unexpected does, finally, win out. But what’s most beautiful about this new film is still what made Trapero’s earliest works shine: His sensationally subtle hand with life’s seemingly dullest moments.

"24 City:" Factory refreshed

It’s no surprise that the Three Gorges Dam Project has inspired some of the greatest, most sorrowful films of the past few years, with a man-made flood overtaking every person, place and thing in the way of terrible progress. Jia Zhang-ke weighed in on the cataclysm with a film whose international title, Still Life, inspires the viewer to look at crumbling worlds in a motion so slowed it reveals a lifetime’s worth of drama in a solitary minute. When life stands "still," it is, we are able to see, incredibly complex.

24 City, opening at Landmark Theatres this weekend, also looks at the wondrous, horrifying changes wrought via state/corporate ideas of progress. This time, a factory that represented an entire world for a very particular class of workers and their families has been relegated to history’s dustbin. And now that dust is being swept into development: a state-of-the-art housing complex is being built in its place.

On the surface, Jia uses the occasion to memorialize the workers’ lives and celebrate the site’s reinvention. But there is so much underpinning both ostensible goals in this film that the full picture, like Still Life’s, becomes much more nuanced. A series of talking-heads interviews actually includes subjects both real and scripted. A slight tedium one feels at the staginess of these interviews in the beginning gives way to fascination as they progress. In one particularly compelling case, Joan Chen plays a woman who recalls her days working in the factory, where she was nicknamed "Little Flower" because she reminded everyone of the actress who played that role: Joan Chen. Now, she ruefully talks about coming to terms with a life that didn’t work out quite the way anyone expected, as she enters her later years alone.

Other interviewees are equally compelling—many find themselves in various states of comfort/duress in worlds far afield from their childhood dreams as sons/daughters of the proud proletariat. But Jia plays it close to the vest: Is 24 City—the factory city now becoming a condo complex—a crisis, an opportunity or some very subtle combination of both? It’s certainly a symbol of the changing nature of Chinese dreams, one Jia finds compelling for perhaps the same reason Three Gorges drew his attention and ours: A great flood may wipe out history and memory, but a great film might save both.

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