Friday, July 15, 2011

Cell 211

Written by: Jorge Guerricercaechevarria, Daniel Monzon

Directed by: Daniel Monzon

Starring: Alberto Ammann, Luis Tosar, Marta Etura

Rating: 7/10

It is Juan Oliver's first day as a prison officer, a job he took to provide for his wife and forthcoming baby. Juan Oliver is a quiet, earnest, likeable young man with a more than usually intuitive. Unfortunately for him, as he is being given the tour of the prison all hell breaks loose as the prisoners attack the guards and take over the prison. Left for dead, abandoned by the guards, Juan Oliver finds himself stuck in the prison with no hope of escape. In order to survive, he poses as a new inmate and manages to befriend the leader of the prisoner, the powerfully charismatic but terrifying Malamadre (which, I believe translates as "son of a bitch").

As Juan Oliver becomes deeper embroiled in the negotiations and rises quickly through the ranks to become Malamadre's right hand man, he begins to see the dark underbelly of the authorities and his loyalty is swayed as his somewhat naive and optimistic view of the institution he works for falls asunder.

As a thriller, Cell 211 is a superior effort. The screenplay is intelligent, tight and well paced. The characters are defined and believable while the universally strong performances bring nuance to what could easily have been just a bunch of thugs. Recalling similar film like John Hillcoat's remarkable Ghosts of the Civil Dead and Hector Babenco's Carandiru (with which this film shares many traits), Cell 211 is a prison thriller that delivers. It may not be emotionally visceral enough to leave you haunted afterwards, but it is certainly a slick, brilliantly executed film. Director Daniel Monzon does not shy away from violence and cruelty, nor does he revel in it. There is a refreshing respect and fear of pain in this film. Every act of violence, whatever the reason behind it is harrowing without being gratuitous. The film's strength lies in the fact that we stay with Juan Oliver throughout and even as his character faces the darkest of moments, the audience remains with him, feeling his madness, feeling his pain. However, the film does allow itself to get bogged down in political preachiness which can be tiresome after a while.

The focus on media interaction gives the film a fresh, contemporary spin, setting it apart from other, more claustrophobic prison movies. There is a sense that what's going on outside the prison shocks the prisoners as much as what's happening inside the prison shocks the outside world. A solid effort, Cell 211 deserves an audience and I have no doubt that it will find it. Perhaps it's small theatrical release won't have them coming in their droves but this is one that should catch on with a DVD release. Worth a watch.

 - Charlene Lydon

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