Sunday, May 15, 2011

14th Spanish Film Festival: Cell 211 (Daniel Monzon, 2009)

Cell 211 was the winner of eight 2009 GOYA Awards, including Best Picture and Director. The film's plot revolves around a prison riot, focusing predominantly on the volatile leader of the revolt, and a rookie prison guard, forced to pretend to be a prisoner to survive the ordeal. I unfortunately missed the opening 10 minutes but Cell 211 was intense, gritty and compelling throughout. Daniel Monson has done a great job endowing the film with such a visually arresting realism (it genuinely looks like the filmmakers have been trapped within the riot, and have documented the footage). Intense hand-held (often the camera seems to get thrown around within the skirmishes) and sharp editing transform these sequences into a very real ordeal for the audience. It is disappointing that this realism is not matched by the plot developments, which are very often implausible, and maddeningly so. Despite being set within the volatile and unpredictable world of a prison, it is noticeably stagey and the plot developments feel ordered for the benefit of its two central protagonists.

Juan Oliver (Albert Ammann) desires to make a good impression at his new job as a prison officer and reports to work a day early, leaving his pregnant wife, Elena, at home. His destiny will forever be changed by this fateful decision, as during his tour of the prison an accident occurs that knocks him unconscious. He is rushed to to an empty cell (the site of a recent suicide), Cell 211. At the same time convicts break free of their cells, hijack prison officers and start to riot. Juan is left stranded and unconscious in Cell 211. When he awakens; in order to survive, he must assume a new identity as a prisoner. He manages to convince the other prisoners that he is one of them, and that he had been entered in prison that day for homicide. He befriends the violent leader, Malamadre (Luis Tosar), who takes him under his wing.

While not exactly original, the two lead characters are quite well drawn. The situation, taking into account the Spanish prison and social context, is quite believable, it is just some of the plot arcs, and the way they draw uninvolved characters into the drama that questions its realism. I wish more time was spent on the prisoners actually involved in the riot. I wondered why that dumb-shit guy in the cap kept popping up. First he is used as a messenger to and from Malamadre and then later a guard for the hostages. Surely there was someone more equipped to handle these duties than this guy. He had a few near-unintelligible lines early on, so it was decided he should stay. He was the source of some out-of-place comic relief too. Apart from some quite amusing responses from Malamadre, which were typical of his character, I didn't think it was necessary to have any humour. The film was far too intense.

It was such a shame that some of the conflict and the character developments feel so staged, as if the riot was started to tell these individual tales. It almost never felt like a spontaneous reaction to a cataclysmic event. It felt very written (and I know the film was 'scripted') but for a film this sporadic and volatile, the twists seemed unjustified. A key turning point in the film is the bashing of Elena, when she joins and becomes trapped within an angry protest mob outside of the prison gates. Why she ever decided to put herself in this situation just cannot be fathomed. Sure, she was suspicious that her husband's new colleagues weren't being straight with her about his involvement, but to become sandwiched within all these people is quite ridiculous. The fact that she was beaten in front of a news cameraman by the same correctional officer, who had earlier been discharged for the beating up a possible testifier to the origins of the riot, is very convenient. But this is exactly what happens, and nearly every ensuing sequence questions the well-being of Elena and the concerns of both Juan for his wife, and Malamadre for him.

Details surrounding Elena become even more important than having their demands met. To think that Malamadre would trust Juan so quickly is also pretty implausible. They try and work around this by having one of the more powerful inmates investigate the man out of instinctual suspicion. It isn't very convincing. Perhaps I am being a little too harsh, because there were so many times I was blown away by what I was watching. At times I felt like I was watching one of the greatest prison dramas since OZ, yet at other times I was shaking my head. To pack this film with such intensity and adrenalin is no small feat by the filmmakers. The excellent performances from Alberto Ammann and Luis Tosar, spectacular cinematic innovations and quite a good ending make this worthwhile, despite its evident flaws.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars (B)


  1. I adored this film, saw it at Glasgow film festival. Too bad you missed the first 10 mins, it has one the most powerful scenes I've seen in ages!

  2. Yeah I had to rush in there after work, so I missed the start unfortunately. I liked it overall, but I found some of the plot developments to be a bit incredible, and it all seemed a bit too staged and convenient for Juan's character. Everything seemed to go wrong for him, and some events just should never have happened. Still, the camerawork was amazing, and the tension was relentless, so it certainly kept me on the edge of my seat. Thanks for the comment Anna!