Cell 211(Celda 211) (2009): Out now on DVD & Bluray
(18) Running time: 114 minutes
Director: Daniel Monzon
Writers: Jorge Guerricaechevarria, Daniel Monzon, Francisco Perez Gandul
Starring: Luis Tosar, Alberto Ammann, Antonio Resines
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
On the sleeve of the DVD case, Total Film has likened this film as “Die Hard meets A Prophet”. Now, I totally agree with the link to the classic French prison film A Prophet, but Die Hard? Don’t get me wrong, I love Die Hard, but it is an action film, Cell 211 is a heavy, heavy drama and if it really did need a comparison to give you an idea of what to expect, I would go with a little known prison film called Against the Wall which was a superb true story of the Attica prisoners uprising. Cell 211, based on the novel by Francisco Perez Gandul, tells the story of an uprising in a Spanish prison, however there is a twist, a newly recruited prison guard is caught on the wrong side of the fence. Sound simple enough? Yes, the film’s plot is pretty straight forward, but the content of the film is anything but. This is a hard as nails, emotional rollercoaster which will have you choosing sides, then choosing a different side, it will also make you question just what is right and what is wrong. Most disturbingly of all, it will have you supporting certain decisions, one’s you would have never thought right. Cell 211 pushes not only the characters but also the viewer into impossible situations, and the fact this film is so tense given that most of what we see here has been done before, is a sign of real skill by director Daniel Monzon.
Alberto Ammann plays Juan Oliver, a new recruit prison guard with a pregnant wife at home called Elena. Wanting to make a good impression in his new job, Juan arrives a day early for a tour and a feel of the prison, a decision that will put him quite literally, through Hell. While walking the prison corridors a piece of brick falls from the ceiling and hits him on the head knocking him unconscious. The two guards showing him around put him on the bed in the empty cell 211. One guard goes to get help while the other stays with him. However, feared prisoner Malamadre (Luis Tosar) has just managed to take a guard hostage and free all the prisoners with the intention of causing a riot. The two guards showing Juan around run for safety, leaving Juan knocked out in the thick of an uprising, not the place to be for a new recruit. However, Juan’s quick thinking when he comes round see’s him remove his shoes, watch and anything which makes him look like something other than a prisoner, and he carefully mingles in with the rest of the rioters. However, he quickly gains the attention of one of Malamadre’s men, putting Juan in a tense situation where he has to prove to Malamadre that he is actually a prisoner.
What follows is one of the most tension filled prison films I have ever seen, and I have seen many. Juan manages to trick Malamadre, but for how long, and what if someone suspects him of being a guard, who will Malamadre believe, a convict or a new face? Just what should the prison guards do to calm the situation, the press are outside, it is all over the news and family’s want answers. As if things couldn’t get any worse, news spreads around the prison of three ETA political prisoners there awaiting transfers who cannot be touched and even worse, Juan’s wife is outside searching for answers. The SWAT teams arrive and the situation really does reach boiling point, with Juan making himself known to the prison guards through a camera and a walkie talkie, and Malamadre getting the upper hand. Juan acts as an advisor to Malamadre, with the pair appearing to become friends.
The whole film is directed absolutely inch perfectly, with some stunning use of music to add to the atmosphere, and a script so tight you often don’t need any action to happen. Every single actor here gives astonishing performances, and added to that such a powerful and at times thought provoking script, there is very little to dislike about Cell 211. In fact, there is nothing to dislike about this breathtaking piece of work. There are scenes of violence, and the opening scene of a man slitting his wrists is incredibly difficult to watch, but necessary. Director Monzon wastes no time in getting into his story, with the prisoners taking over less than ten minutes in. Any back stories are learnt through characters discussions, however Juan’s story is given the footage treatment as powerful and heartbreaking scenes of him and his wife appear every now and then. This is powerful filmmaking at its absolute best, with actors who have clearly been given direct instructions by a director who knew EXACTLY what he wanted.
Cell 211 is a work of brilliance: powerful, harrowing, thought provoking and most of all, believable. Many prison films come and go, but few will leave such a lasting impression as this.