Bunged up in the big house
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