It all begins with a deafening silence which lasts through a long sequence of opening credits up until the lazy click of a cigarette lighter. What follows then is an ingenious work of making a sharp-edged weapon with a cigarette butt, a look of hopeless despair, and a slow suicide timed only by the sound of splatting drops of water. A simple reminder that “here” anything could be lethal, even a spoon.
Alberto Ammann plays Juan Oliver, the nervous, eager-to-impress guard being shown around the prison, each sight and sound of which seems to rattle him. The prison’s constant state of construction lands rubble on the new guard, rendering him unconscious. The guards carry Juan to cell number 211 which has been recently emptied even as Malamadre (a lifer played by Luis Tosar) manages to take a guard distracted by the accident hostage. The prison soon erupts into a riot.
The sequence of events – Juan getting injured, Malamadre taking a guard hostage – might have seemed staged and resulted in Cell 211 becoming another prison break story, but Juan’s visit is made to look voluntary and that saves it from the fall. As the guards assume defensive positions, Juan is left to fight the prisoners with his own wit as the entire block is cordoned off. From here, Juan plays the new prisoner who makes sound strategic decisions to keep his job and the situation under control.
Director Daniel Monzón uses the black and white muted video feed from the security cameras effectively to frame a judgmental point of view of the rioting prisoners. As you absorb the scene, a loud-colored camera feed hits you hard, flooding your senses with the scenes someone in the riot would have witnessed.
As Juan is left against hardened criminals to test his will to do what is right, the audience is tossed to and fro between the two points of view – that of a prisoner and that of the outside world (read: the cruel penal system). Monzón narrates the prison break in flashbacks, each one weakening in its impact as the prison scene spirals further out of control. Juan is clever at improvisation and a delight to watch. Not to say that the others give dismal performances, but they seem to have fallen off the main picture while Juan gets all the attention and Malamadre fights for it.
On the whole, the film is a thought-provoking thriller and deserves the eight Goyas (Spanish Oscars) it won.
(Malamadre, as seen in the poster above, resembles an imposing demonstrator standing against the riot police in a photograph by Danny Ghitis, during the run-up to the US presidential elections of 2008.