He's caught in the middle
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 29, 2010
A lot can happen in 10 minutes, as one of the main characters notes in "Cell 211," a spellbinding Spanish drama set during tense negotiations surrounding a violent prison uprising. The state might unexpectedly accede to the prisoners' demands. The SWAT team might storm the cellblock. Prisoners could start killing hostages, or each other. A lot can happen in 10 minutes.
"Cell 211" is almost two hours long.
Nearly every minute throbs with heart-pounding suspense, from the opening scene of a prisoner slashing his wrists with a razor blade fashioned from a cigarette filter to its mournful, blood-soaked conclusion. In between lies a tale of truly tragic proportions.
Director and co-writer Daniel Monzon's film opens the day before a new recruit named Juan (Alberto Ammann) is to start work as a guard. While taking a tour of the prison, a riot breaks out, and Juan is left injured and lying in an empty cell. Thinking quickly, and now sporting a head injury, he decides to pass himself off as a prisoner who has been roughed up. There's no other option; if his identity as a guard is discovered, he's a dead man. His injuries, along with a few survival maneuvers he picked up before his uniformed guide ditched him (maintain eye contact, don't show fear), put him in good stead with Malamadre (Luis Tosar), the magnetic leader of the prison's most hardened, antisocial cons.
Juan's job from that moment forward becomes not just to maintain his ruse, but to prevent a raid by the paramilitary forces arrayed on every rooftop and waiting for the go-ahead to attack.
At this point, a little primer on Spanish politics is useful. The three men being held hostage by the prisoners also happen to be prisoners themselves - in this case members of a Basque separatist movement widely considered to be a terrorist organization. Prisons across Spain are full of them, and any injury to one would precipitate retaliatory bloodshed across the country.
The situation, to put it mildly, is tense. Juan is caught between a mob of jumpy killers with nothing to lose and an equally restless army of Kevlar-suited commandos whose trigger fingers are just itching to squeeze off a few rounds, should one of the precious hostages be killed. Juan has to hold both forces at bay, convincing Malamadre that he's trustworthy (that is, a crook) while reassuring the state's chief negotiator (Manuel Moron) that he's devious enough to keep the other crooks in line. Add a sadistic, hot-tempered guard (Antonio Resines) to the mix, and Juan's pregnant, very worried wife (Marta Etura) on the outside, and things could hardly get worse.
"I hope this kid's a good liar," the warden says.
He is, beyond even his own expectations. What happens to change the movie's hero - not in terms of action, though there's plenty, but morally - is disheartening, yet shockingly believable.
The cast is uniformly strong, Monzon's direction riveting. For his portrayal of Malamadre, a villain both honorable and evil, Tosar won a well-deserved award at this year's Goya awards (the Spanish Oscars), along with Ammann and Etura. Monzon took home the award for best director; the film itself won four additional prizes, including best picture.
It's easy to see why, though there's nothing easy about this tough and beautiful tale.
Contains requent, bloody violence and rioting, near-constant obscenity, partial nudity, sexual references, brief sensuality and drug use. In Spanish and Basque with English subtitles.