“I’ll see what I can do”
Now this is the film I thought Un prophète would be. Despite all the hype surrounding that French prison drama—it was great—it never reached the pedestal of perfection for me. Yet here is the Goya sweeping Celda 211 [Cell 211]—not even given the country’s selection for inclusion on the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar list, but then that whole process of one per country is messed up to begin with—criminally given no buzz in America that I’ve been aware of. It snuck by me at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, but I refused to make the same mistake twice, checking it out at 2010’s 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival. Daniel Monzón’s work is a masterpiece of prison dynamics between guards and inmates, as well as each faction amongst its own. Its gritty and uncompromising imagery is unmatched on the thrill scale, going to dark places fearlessly, causing the audience to even begin sympathizing with the criminal catalysts of a full-scale riot. At what point do the actions of over-zealous, unsympathetic guards become scrutinized and reformed on behalf of murderers and rapists? Do they even deserve to be treated as anything more than dogs?
The film, adapted from a novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul, is co-written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría, screenwriter on my favorite Almodóvar, Carne trémula, so asking questions like that shouldn’t be surprising. It all begins with the graphic suicide of Morao, creating a sharp blade from the melted and hardened innards of a cigarette before using it to slice his forearms, wrist to elbow. As jarring as the scene is, putting you right into the hellish nightmare you’ll be residing in for the duration, the death isn’t put into context until later. Finding out the reasons for his demise, the criminal negligence precipitating the action, becomes a driving force towards why Malamadre, sentenced for life and already a veteran of leading a huge prison uprising, stages his riot. A trio of terrorists has arrived—a fact fed to him by an unknown loudmouth—and is the perfect fit for a hostage situation. It doesn’t take long for him to gain control of an entire wing, lackeys and friendly ethnic leaders by his side, ready to set his demands and do whatever is necessary since he has nothing to lose.
But there is an unknown factor no one could have imagined. The event occurs on the day before Juan Oliver is to begin working at the prison. Hoping to make a good impression, he arrives early for an impromptu tour of the facility, brown-nosing with a kind-hearted guard Armando and his ill-tempered superior Utrilla. A concrete block falls from the ceiling, causing a third guard to step away from Malamadre just long enough for the criminal to spit up a blade and put everything into motion. It ends up that Juan was hit in the head, blacking out and becoming a liable to the safety of his two comrades who decide to leave him in cell 211, unoccupied for reasons that will be revealed later on, in order to save themselves. One of Malamadre’s cohorts discovers the bloodied man unconscious on the floor and goes to get his boss to clear up the aberration, but Juan is smart and regains his wits quickly. He removes everything his coworkers just finished telling him were contraband for inmates, disposing of his belt, shoelaces, jewelry, and wallet inside the toilet, awaiting his inevitable captors to bring him out, praying he can trick them into thinking he’s a killer too, at least long enough to get out.
And so the film begins with Juan’s transformation into Calzones, an intelligent killer with a wife and baby on the way—truth within the lie—that on more than one occasion saves Malamadre from making critical mistakes. The lies bill Calzones as a head case and his fearlessness to look Malamadre in the eye, telling him what’s on his mind, forms a deep bond between the two men, something this self-proclaimed general’s compatriots Tachuela and Apache see as an error of judgment, setting on a mission to find out who Juan Oliver really is. But the relationship has been cemented, even if Juan still has his sights on finding a way for the hostage negotiators to let him leave, thus freeing him from the chaos of unpredictable, hasty action. Unfortunately the spiral continues to spin out of control as every second passes, subverting his chances and rendering it all moot once the SWAT team waiting outside threatens to enter and recover the terrorists. The unpredictable series of events occurring also begin to effect Juan personally, opening his eyes to the injustice and brutality inflicted on the guilty, transforming him from optimistic father-to-be into a man with nothing to live for other than revenge and pride.
The psychology necessary to keep the plot organic stems from the two amazing performances by Luis Tosar, (Malamadre), and Alberto Ammann, (making his feature film debut as Juan). Tosar is a formidable loose cannon that you do not want to anger or get in his way. Willing to take all the heat this riot will bring, he does it for his fellow brothers behind bars, sick of the way they are treated. When he sits down with Calzones and talks from his heart, you see the compassion that resides within his broken, amoral soul; the code of survival his family of criminals lives by on the brink of obsolescence. And then there is Ammann, equal parts scared kid caught behind enemy lines and cool, collected actor doing what’s needed to survive. He has the utmost confidence that the negotiators will get him out before anything crazy happens, so he strings Malamadre along, learning everything he can, but at the same time slowly awakening to what it is these men contend with on the other side. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the men trapped are smarter than those holding the guns. The rescue mission gets out of control as guards begin to take matters into their own hands, looking to be heroes and also cover up mistakes made to help make the riot possible.
Monzón’s attention to detail and ability to hide clues until just the right moment ratchets up the suspense so you are on the edge of your seat throughout, not wondering if this powder keg is going to blow, but when. There is backstabbing, violence as a means to make a point, united compassion for a second riot—this time family members of the incarcerated wondering who was killed early on—happening outside, and a willingness to make good on their threats of murdering the most dangerous killers held captive, ironically the only lives the police need to remain safe. The politics of the situation are only on the surface of greater issues concerning empathy and the quest for justice. No matter what your opinions on the subject—I myself lean towards the Fascist spectrum of killing every criminal from murder to jaywalking in order to quell all unlawful activity—the performances and evolution of story will make you question your beliefs. Only when you become trapped on the other side, experiencing the blind injustice usually swept under the rug, do you fully understand the meaning of humanity. You can’t pick and choose what suits you at any given time; just ask Antonio Resines’ Utrilla and Marta Etura’s Elena Oliver. The two become involved in a climactic moment, changing everything and making Celda 211 go from great film to mind-blowingly intense masterpiece. It is brutal, unfiltered, thought provoking, and above all else real. You can’t ask for any more than that.
Celda 211 [Cell 211] 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival