Movie Review: Celda 211 (Cell 211) (2009)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’s computer.

The other night Miles and I sat down to watch an Alex Cox film we didn’t know much about, since he’s been on a Repo Man kick and wanted more of the director. But it looked terrible and everyone was a bad actor so within 10 minutes we shut it off, and decided to watch Cell 211 on a whim since we both missed it at IFF Boston a few years ago. Set almost entirely within a high-security prison in Spain, the film follows the events surrounding a riot led by Malamadre (Luis Tosar), a charismatic killer who knows he’ll never get out, and now fights only to improve living conditions for himself and his fellow prisoners. Caught within lock-down is young security guard Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) on his first day, who poses as a prisoner to protect himself and manages to seriously affect the outcome of the riot.

Cell 211 expertly combines nail-biting dramatic tension with a sober look at the experiences of prisoners serving long terms. Characters evolve unexpectedly over the course of two days, influenced by traumatizing events and shifting motivations. The two main leads are fantastic, with Tosar’s penetrating gaze and gruff voice playing off of Ammann’s boyish good looks and escalating desperation. We learn more about each character as the film progresses, resulting in altered perceptions and eventual transformation as their relationship solidifies. The weak link for me was Juan’s pregnant wife, who is used only as a plot device, and a stereotypical one at that. I didn’t mind how her character played into the story, since she has a significant effect on how Juan acts, but she was portrayed as a flat archetype and as the only female in the entire movie it was very noticeable. This is NOT a movie about ladies and that’s ok, but if you’re going to have one woman in your movie you could put a little more work into her character.

Aside from the lady thing, this movie is extremely well-done. I loved how the space of the prison wing is used, with claustrophobic cells and wide-open congregations juxtaposed as the guards try to follow their charges around on the movable security camera. I don’t know much about general conditions in high-security Spanish prisons but the themes discussed felt pretty universal. What struck me most was how reasonable Malamadre’s demands were. He had one prison guard and three political prisoners held hostage, sure, but all he wanted was improved medical treatment for ailing inmates (in the titular cell 211 a prisoner had recently committed suicide to escape the pain of his malignant tumor), the allowance of regular visits from family members, and more humane conditions under the abusive guards. The solution seemed so simple, I was crushed as the situation escalated to more and more violent ends. This movie is really good, but goddamn is it bleak. Do not expect anything good to happen, like, at all. JUST LIKE REAL LIFE.


Pair This Movie With: I had the excellent Le Trou on my mind, probably because that’s the most recent prison movie I’ve seen, and it’s a very different look at prisoner relations and treatment.

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