A gritty, uncompromising prison drama, INSIDE (A.K.A. HISTOIRE DE PEN) is such a downer it makes the recent LILYA 4-EVER look like AMELIE. But while LILYA 4-EVER felt manipulative and false, this French-Canadian effort earns its power honestly. It's hard to watch, but it rings so true that it can't be dismissed.Claude is a rugged but rather naive 19 year old man who lands in prison for a projected ten-year stretch after an unwise youthful escapade. Finding himself in the company of some of the meanest-looking inmates ever captured on film, Claude soon realizes he'll have to learn to use his fists to survive. He gains the protection of one of the gangs in exchange for regular participation in the bare-knuckle fights the prisoners bet on--a highly illegal practice the authorities reluctantly tolerate. But Claude soon finds that his struggles are far from over.
In many ways INSIDE offers nothing new; the characters seem derived the parade of stock figures--e.g., the resident drag queen, the crazy-but-harmless goofball--of any other prison film you've seen. But what gives INSIDE its edge, and lifts it above the PENITENTIARY-type movies, is not only its grimy visuals but its attention of character; director Michel Jetté treats the inmates not as photogenic goons but as human beings, however depraved they may be. One inmate receives an affectionate letter from a daughter he has not seen in years--and goes berserk with rage that he cannot share in her happiness.
Jetté successfully illustrates the degradations of prison life; he shows how merely bad men can, in the face of depravation and brutality, become evil. As director, he's willing to make daring choices; on occasion, the film borders on expressionism. Claude is visited nightly by a whispery voice from an adjoining cell--a hallucination? a ghost?--confessing his deeds. At times like this, Jetté makes the film so claustrophobically dank that it becomes difficult to watch--quite apart from the violence of certain individual scenes.The film is so unrelenting that a lot of people will be turned off by it simply on those grounds. It's not a feel-good picture, but it IS extremely well made.