Posted December 6, 2010 by Marcia Degia - Publisher in Films

Cell 211

A move constant is that Prison Is Tough. From The Big House to Un Prophet, violence and brutality have always been top of the penal agenda

A move constant is that Prison Is Tough. From The Big House to Un Prophet, violence and brutality have always been top of the penal agenda, with rehabilitation a passing fantasy at best. Screws are b*stards, shivs are used liberally and retribution is never more than one false step away. Hell, even Shawshank’s Andy Dufresne spent time in the hole, although his offence was a little more nuanced than, say, stuffing pool balls in a sock.

On the face of it Cell 211, Spain’s latest contribution to the prison movie canon, strays little from the accepted narrative. From its opening shot of a man out of options slicing open his arms, we’re presented with a familiar parade of muscle-bound, angry lags. First among equals in this farm is Luis Tosar’s Malmadre, a Bronson-like bull of a man, so hard he’s got his own name tattooed on his back so people know not to f**k with him. Five minutes in and he’s killed a warder, starting the riot from which everything stems.

Thrust into this madness is the requisite innocent, Alberto Amman’s Luis, though in a break from the norm he’s not the victim of injustice. In fact, he’s never even been tried. Turning up a day early for his new job as a warder, the roof literally falls in on him. Abandoned in the titular Cell, which still bears the marks of the earlier suicide, he’s locked down inside the riot-afflicted wing. Showing an aptitude absent from his would-be colleagues, Luis swiftly and necessarily re-invents himself as a new inmate and gets taken under Malmadre’s wing, winning favour by being smarter than the average con.

Throw in a bunch of ETA terrorists for negotiation leverage and you’ve got a stand-off with the outside world, where Luis’ pregnant, desperate wife is up against an unsympathetic officialdom as brutal as the rioters.

So the stage is set for Luis to sort it all out and emerge the hero into the arms of his loving wife, but to director Daniel Monzon’s credit things don’t pan out like that. There’s as little in the way of rehabilitation here as in any other jail flick, but there’s intelligence about the way inmates and warders alike suffer the effects of institutionalization.

Of course there’s some pretty nasty violence, leavened by the sort of dark humour that only comes from people trapped in crappy situations, and a claustrophobic score that perfectly fits what unfolds.

Tosar’s the undoubted star, ruling every scene he’s in, and while Amman gives it his all you can’t quite shake the feeling that he’s just too pretty to pass as a lag. Not that this stood in the way of Newman in Cool Hand Luke. But Amman’s a peacock in a room full of turkeys here.

There’s some standout support to, particularly Fernando Soto’s hangdog warder, a Frankenstein’s monster courtesy of Luis Zahera and Carlos Bardem, Javier’s brother, as one of the most conniving b*stards you’re likely to see all year.

Cell 211 may suffer in comparison with Un Prophet, and while not up to the extremely high standards set by that film, it’s than good enough to stand on its own.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia has worked in the media industry for more than 10 years. She was previously Acting Managing Editor of Homes and Gardens magazine, Publishing Editor at Macmillan Publishers and Editor of Pride Magazine. Marcia, who has a Masters degree in Screenwriting, has also been involved in many broadcast projects. Among other things, she was the devisor of the documentary series Secret Suburbia for Living TV.