|for fans of multi-layered, taut and uncompromising prison dramas
|Alberto Ammann, Luis Tosar, Antonio Resines, Carlos Bardem, Luis Zahera, Marta Etura
|15th July 2011
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Juan (Alberto Ammann) is excited, but more than a little anxious, about his new job, as a guard at a top security prison. Leaving his heavily pregnant wife Elena alone at home, he decides to pop along the day before he starts to be shown around properly so that he can hit the ground running.
Early in the day, a group of prisoners, led by a shaven-headed, murderous thug known as Malamadre (translating as ‘Bad Mother’ and played by Luis Tosar) manages to overthrow a guard and free their fellow inmates.
In the riot that follows, Juan is wounded. His fellow guards, take him to the nearest cell to lie him down. When the marauding inmates start to close in, the others flee, leaving him alone and unconscious in Cell 211.
When Juan comes to, he has to think quickly on his feet. He can’t let Malamadre and his gang know he’s a guard, so when he emerges from the cell, he tells them he’s a new inmate and the blood came from a beating from the retreating guards.
The prisoners don’t know him and they don’t trust him, but Juan’s only hope of survival is to win them around. Slowly, he manages to secure their acceptance and persuades the ringleaders to try to negotiate to end the siege.
But the prison managers are more worried about protecting the Basque separatists being held captive by the other prisoners and suppressing a riot by relatives of the inmates who’ve gathered outside.
With paramilitary snipers on roofs overlooking the prison, gung ho guards beating back protestors in the forecourt, prison authorities fighting for their political lives and rival gangs of inmates threatening Malamadre’s authority inside, the scene is set for a tense, unpredictable and bloody stand-off.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
Prison dramas have become de rigeur of late; the deservedly-multi-award-winning A Prophet from France and last year’s American independent Dog Pound.
This Spanish addition to the genre quickly earns its stripes and sits comfortably in the pantheon of prison films.
From the outset, the tension ratchets up and the uncompromising violence that follows convinces at almost every turn, although there are a handful of twists and turns that feel a little contrived, over-egged or inexcusably clichéd. But it survives them.
The drama is multi-layered, with the inmates fighting among themselves, despite the brutal and ruthless leadership of Luis Tosar’s Malamadre, the authoritarian prison bosses thinking about their own careers and wider domestic politics than the crisis at hand and our protagonist’s need to outsmart the country’s most devious criminal minds – although giving him heavily pregnant wife and then having her caught up the riot is perhaps a cliché too far,
Tosar – best-known to English-speaking audiences from Michael Mann’s Miami Vice – gives us one of the most effective, but tragic movie bad guys since Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator – reigning down his vicious authority on those around him while betraying a surprising insecurity, but in oddly professional and honourable manner.
Antonio Resines’s conflicted guard and Carlos Bardem’s (Javier’s older brother) scheming inmate are also interesting characters.
But Alberto Ammann’s Juan – at the centre of the film – lacks the charisma to control the screen. He’s perfectly adequate but his wily cunning looks decidedly blank beside Tosar’s fearsome and majestic bravado.
There is a slightly more interesting drama about betrayal trying to escape from this exciting thriller about sharp-thinking bravery.
Cell 211 could have done with having its length reduced a little for good behaviour, but it’s a must for fans of taut, claustrophobic dramas and fresh European cinema.