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By Diego Zerpa Chang
Published August 25, 2008

Fresh from its widespread acclaim at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the latest film from director Pablo Trapero portrays the lives of ordinary people with a critical eye toward modern Argentine society.

Leonera is meant to be a revealing snapshot of Argentina’s prison system for women, but on a more personal level, it chronicles the lives of three female characters whose interconnection sheds light on the growth of a young mother imprisoned for murder.

The story begins when Julia (Martina Gusman) wakes up with bruises on her body and her hands covered in blood. Unsure of what has happened, she gathers herself, showers and leaves for school to continue her normal routine. When she returns home, she discovers how wrong things have gone. Her two lovers are lying on the kitchen floor: one of them, Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), is badly wounded but still alive the other is dead. Julia is carrying the child of one of these men—the question is which one. She is arrested, charged with murder and taken to a unique ward for pregnant prisoners and new mothers. Isolated and frightened, she is a distraught woman who is about to experience the phenomenon of motherhood in an unusually brutal environment of the so-called lion’s den.

Julia gets a welcome breather from her plight when two important people come into her life—Marta (Laura Garcia), an inmate who has already raised two sons behind bars and who becomes a quasimentor for Julia, and Sofia (Elli Medeiros), Julia’s own mother, who after many years adrift is reunited with her troubled daughter.

As the bond between the three solidifies, Trapero makes it difficult not to feel sympathy for Julia and her unborn child he gives the audience a vivid glimpse of how her pregnancy evolves against the backdrop of prison life and the memory of an unchangeable mistake. When Julia finally gives birth to her son Tomas, she is met head-on with the stark reality that a prison, especially one in a city as economically and politically strapped as Buenos Aires, is no place to raise a child. Should she grant custody to her mother, or should she fight to keep Tomas in this shady environment?

These are just some of the existential questions that Julia faces near the end of the film—questions that linger long after the final credits have rolled. With the support of Brazilian director Walter Salles and South Korean producer Young-Joo Suh, Leonera