Bunged up in the big house

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

IT’S JUAN Oliver’s first day on the job, and he’s look­ing neat as a pin as he kisses his heav­ily preg­nant wife good­bye. The other prison of­fi­cers take him on a tour of the fa­cil­ity, ges­tur­ing mean­ing­fully to­wards the var­i­ous parts where they keep the real badasses and the Eta ac­tivists.

They’ve scarcely cov­ered the ba­sics when a freak ac­ci­dent leaves Juan un­con­scious. His com­pan­ions call out for help just as a prison riot breaks out, leav­ing them with lit­tle op­tion but to leave Juan be­hind in the tit­u­lar cell. He awak­ens in the thick of it and, quickly re­mov­ing his shoelaces and belt, pre­tends to be a newly ar­rived in­mate. Can he im­press the res­i­dent jai­l­yard tzar Mala­madre (lit­er­ally “bad mother”) long enough to sur­vive the riot?

Wel­come to the open­ing min­utes of di­rec­tor Daniel Mon­zon’s zippy prison-break flick. The win­ner of eight Goya Awards and an Ibe­rian box-of­fice sen­sa­tion, Cell 211 is pul­sat­ing and generic enough to war­rant a Hol­ly­wood re­make ( Crash’s Paul Hag­gis is al­ready re­work­ing the screen­play into English), yet smart enough to work as dev­as­tat­ing so­cial cri­tique.

There’s a lot of the Stan­ford Prison Ex­per­i­ment in the film’s dark tra­jec­tory; lines be­tween black hats and white hats are duly blurred. The screws have a guy on the in­side and so do the in­mates. Luis Tosar’s Mala­madre is a smart, hon­ourable mur­derer and a ready-made clas­sic movie an­ti­hero. The authorities, mean­while, are rather less trust­wor­thy. As the sit­u­a­tion in the prison in­ten­si­fies, a pan­icked po­lice force beats the crowds gather­ing out­side and news of sub­se­quent demon­stra­tions in Basque Coun­try fil­ters through.

Al­bert Am­mann’s Juan is a de­cent fam­ily man, but even he has his lim­its. A mis­chie­vously ma­li­cious screen­play throws ev­ery­thing at its pro­tag­o­nist to make him crack. His psy­cho­log­i­cal state and the po­lit­i­cal sub­text are rarely al­lowed to over­shadow the ac­tion.

The grim view of the pe­nal sys­tem and de­fi­ant anti-au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism may re­call John Hill­coat’s Ghosts of the Civil Dead, but the ac­ces­si­ble, if im­plau­si­ble beats place Cell 211 one failed mo­tor­cy­cle jump away from The Great Es­cape.

El hom­bre loco: Luis Tosar in Cell 211

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