Thursday, October 28, 2010

A movie review: Celda 211 (2010) aka Cell 211

Cell 211 (2009)
aka "Celda 211" - Spain (original title)

Director - Daniel Monzon
113 min; Unrated
Alberto Ammann - Juan Oliver
Luis Tosar - Malamadre

You simply cannot know how you will react to traumatic circumstances until you are thrust into the middle of the storm. If you are Juan Oliver in the film Cell 211 you quickly discover that surviving at all costs is both a skill and an instinctive response. I'm not sure how realistic this film is in the quest to portray dilapidated prison conditions which house Spain's worst offenders, but I sure hope I never have to find out. Besides, the film does not come across as a political message about the lives of prisoners in Spain, it is more or less a simple story of survival for one man trapped in a nightmare who has to make unthinkable choices at every turn. Perhaps there is more significance to those in Spain or the surrounding area, but as an American viewer I appreciated the film as an entertaining and intriguing story all by itself.

One day before he is to start his new job as a prison guard at a Zamora prison, Juan Oliver kisses his pregnant young wife and goes to take a tour of the facilities. He is given the tour by 2 of his soon to be co-workers and he learns briefly about the conditions of the DSS prisoners - those who are marked for special surveillance and spend almost all of their time in solitary confinement taking regular beatings from officers. A split second later everything changes for Oliver. A freak accident leaves him injured just as a riot breaks out in the prison. Left with a choice to help him or save themselves the two guards bolt leaving Oliver stranded and wounded in the empty cell 211. When he awakens he is foggy but must quickly determine how to survive. Passing himself off cleverly as a new inmate, Oliver must gain the trust of everyone or be killed on the spot.

Though staying on the good side of everyone in the riot is important, it is really only the opinion of the riot leader, Malamadre, that matters. A brutal killer with nothing to lose, he is well versed in the prison system and the art of negotiation. He knows that a riot is the only way to get better conditions in any form from the prison or the government, but usually once the riot is over the demands which were met are quickly dismissed. This time he has a better plan that includes the hostage taking of 3 political prisoners of great importance.

The film contains some cliche moments and some caricatured characters, but overall the interplay between Oliver and Malamadre is superb. One is a regular guy, decent, the other a complex murderer, and it is up to Oliver to make sure their relationship stays civil. Along the way Oliver must make personal sacrifices which border on the unthinkable, and in the end he must struggle greatly with a turn that he could have never foreseen.

The film is shot in a grainy texture that I admire for the subject matter, and though you have to suspend disbelief for some of the plot, the overall theme is carried well throughout and sometimes portrayed with brutal and striking violence. Psychologically this is a strong film that will leave you thinking as the credits roll. The film won 8 Goya awards, which is equivalent to a film sweeping the Oscars. I'm not sure it deserves all that, but it is definitely a worthy film of your time.

**** out of 5

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