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1 review, 1 rating

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Cell 211
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by Jay Seaver

"A high-concept story made good."
5 stars

Director Daniel Monzon seems to know that the hook to "Cell 211", with a rookie guard having to impersonate an inmate when a riot breaks out, is as improbable as it is intriguing. He and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria (adapting a novel by Francisco Perez Gandul) run through the set-up quickly, getting us right into its story and then following it where it leads. What takes it from a cool concept to a great movie is how "where it leads" is always both logical and surprising.

Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) will be starting as a guard at Zamora prison as a guard tomorrow, but he want to make a good impression, so he goes in a day early to get the lay of the land. Wardens Ernesto Almansa (Manuel Moron) and Armando Nieto (Fernando Soto) are giving him a tour when a rock thrown in the yard crashes through a decayed bit of grill-work and hits him. Ernesto and Almansa move the dazed Juan to an empty cell, but at the same time, one of the prison's most infamous inmates, "Malamadre" (Luis Tosar), overpowers another guard (Ricardo de Barreiro) and incites a riot. The guards retreat, leaving Juan behind. When he comes to, he quickly disposes of anything that would identify him as an outsider and tries to ingratiate himself with Malamadre and his lieutenants Apache (Carlos Bardem) and Releches (Luis Zahera), while his pregnant wife Elena (Marta Etura) tries to find out what's going on.

Those of us not from Spain may not quite grasp why SWAT doesn't just burst in to take care of the situation right away - it involves some of the prisoners being Basque terrorists, and them being caught in the crossfire would apparently be a political disaster. We get the gist, though, and the film uses this to not only keep the story from ending too quickly, but to raise the stakes without expanding the scope of the story too much - there will be consequences outside of the prison, but Juan, Malamadre, and company aren't going to have control taken from their hands. It also enables Monzon and company to make points about the use of force without preaching to the choir. It's a smart, clear-headed movie that trusts its audience to see and think about what's going on without diverting itself from the main story.

In a way, it's doing this by treating its audience like it treats its main characters. Juan, Malamadre, and company are maybe not geniuses, but they're smart and determined; the whole movie is the pair of them trying to out-think each other and the various forces outside their cell block while the wardens try and do the same. Both Tosar and Ammann give arresting performances. Tosar's Malamadre in particular is a tightrope act that never looks like one; the character is brash, violent, and confident, but never comes across as arrogant or even thuggish. We never see Tosar holding anything back - it's a big, almost theatrical performance, a little too broad to seem natural even for a character who is supposed to be larger-than-life - but Tosar walks right up to the line that would be overacting without crossing it, and in the process manages to get us to develop begrudging respect for Malamadre. He could be nothing more than the "bad mother" his name proclaims him to be, but Tosar lets us see the character has a brain and a heart even in his more ruthless moments.

Alberto Ammann, meanwhile, gets to show us a man with cracks starting to form in his foundations. To his and the filmmakers' credit, Juan is never presented as a naive fool; even in the romantic, often-playful flashbacks with Marta Etura's Elena, we see a man with some heft to him. But as soon as things start to go down, we see an intelligence born of desperation, and Ammann spends the movie showing us the precarious balance of the moral and the pragmatic considerations going on in Juan's head. When Malamadre begins rattling off his demands, we see brief flashes of "maybe this guy's got a point" on Juan's face before the ultimate determination that all that matters is getting through the situation without getting killed. We can see the difference between him pretending to be tough and actually being tough, although we believe that it might fool the other characters. And when the game-changing moments come, it's on Ammann to make us believe what happens next is the only thing that can happen, even when we're caught by surprise.

And there are some tense moments. The movie is full of them, actually; Monzon and company play the siege as enduring despite every party trying to gain an advantage out of every tiny change of circumstances, in part because everybody knows that it's a bad idea to break the standoff unless they're certain to come out on top. Still, every bit of infighting seems like it could shift the balance of power and every attempt to control the situation looks to potentially backfire. The big scene that changes everything is a sickening moment that nevertheless develops naturally and echoes through the rest of the movie. Like much of the rest of the movie, it and everything that follows are too inevitable, even without the benefit of hindsight, to be called a twist, but those moments certainly send things in new and uncertain directions.

Monzon, Guerricaechevarria, and company tell a tight story, and they've got impressive control over how they tell it. They use flashbacks extremely well - the one that opens the movie is brought back at the perfect time, and the scenes of Juan and Elena seem precisely talented to release just the smallest amount of tension needed to keep things from collapsing (the flashforwards, on the other hand, seem a bit hackneyed). There's an understated realism to the movie; it feels like Monzon and cinematographer Carles Gusi capture moments rather than stage them, though they never go so far to emphasize it by using grain, shaky cameras, or bad framing to signal "real" to the audience. Composer Roque Baños is similarly restrained, with many dramatic moments lacking an underscore.

That goes back to Monzon and company trusting their audience. There's natural tension in the premise of "Cell 211", and the filmmakers figure that the audience can respond to it without prompting. It's a taut, thrilling picture, one that takes its high concept and fulfills its promise without compromising.

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originally posted: 10/24/10 16:53:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 13th Annual European Union Film Festival For more in the 13th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/17/11 Narda raw drama. One of the best movies of 2009 4 stars
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  DVD: 30-Aug-2011



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