“The cure better not be worse than the illness”
After a whole year of conducting research into the realities of prison life by interviewing inmates, their relatives and prison officers, Daniel Monzón directed the film Cell 211 (Spanish: Celda 211, 2009), adapting Francisco Pérez Gandul’s novel of the same name. It took the Spanish audience and critics by storm. The Spanish-French co-production boasts 8 Goya awards and stands out for its impressive acting and an exceptional script.
Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) wants to make a good first impression at his new job as a prison guard. He shows up a day before duty, but during his tour around the premises he gets into an accident that leaves him unconscious. The two other guards carry him into an unoccupied cell. While they are trying to revive him, a riot breaks out among the high profile convicts under the leadership of Malamadre (Luis Tosar).
As the prisoners take over the site in a violent outburst, the two guards panic and flee, leaving Juan behind. Coming back to his senses, Juan realises the dire position he is in, and must now pretend to the best of his ability that he is one of the prisoners – if he wishes to see his wife again.
The film dives into action right from the start, avoiding any redundancies by merging two very different sides of the same coin in an unlikely partnership. Even the ETA (the armed Basque separatist organisation) hostages, who are introduced in the negotiation process, are part of a political subplot that enriches the fast-paced story, relentlessly keeping us on the edge of our seats. The twists are somewhat expected from a certain point onwards, but the microcosm of prison life, portrayed with just enough violent streaks and dramatic notes, makes for a captivating exploration of a foreign world.
The leading duo is another point of praise, as their character development remains believable throughout. Moreover, their relationship – and resulting interactions – reveals the ever-changing and adaptable human nature in times of tension. Despite Ammann’s debut appearance, his adrenaline-spiked performance never slips up, enabling us to identify with him while he re-examines the fringes of morality. The entire cast delivers exceptional performances, with top-dog Tosar and sadistic guard Antonio Resines stealing the show.
Carlos Gusi’s photography shows Zamora prison in an authentically arid way, while the screenplay by acclaimed Jorge Guerricaechevarria (Live Flesh, 1998) proves to be yet another gear in the production’s smoothly running machine. The dualism of prison life and the outside world highlights the inmates’ rough living conditions, which grate, then bolster the deep friendships born in austere environments.
By the end, we are left contemplating the unperceptive transformation of a leader into someone with an unquenchable thirst for abusing his power. In this way, the mechanics of prison crawl out into the real world, reflecting a reality shared by all.
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