Friday, 25 February 2011

GFF 2011 - Cell 211

"Cell 211" is the second great Spanish film I've seen this year.

The first, of course, was "Biutiful" with its towering central performance from Javier Bardem.

"Cell 211" is tense, violent, shocking and built on a genuinely thrilling premise.

Juan Oliver arrives one day early to start his new job as a prison guard.  On his tour of the prison he finds himself falling foul of some loose masonry that knocks him unconscious at exactly the same moment as a riot breaks out.  His two companions, unable to carry him to safety, leave him inside cell 211 and make their escape.  Dressed still in his non-work clothes Juan comes to and sets about convincing the prisoners that he is one of them.

Simple but brilliantly so.

As the story unfolds Juan is dragged deeper and deeper into the world of the prisoners and further and further away from who he was at the start of the day.  Forced to make difficult decisions from the very start  he finds those decisions easier and easier by the films end.

Their are two key relationships in Juans life; the first is with his pregnant wife and the second is with the prisons "top dog" and resident psychopath Malamadre.  At home, with the beautiful Elena, Juan is shown as a gentle, loving, tender man who loves his wife so much that he is prepared to take on board the dangerous job of prison guard.  He bemoans his lack of education and can't understand why a woman like her would choose to be with him.  It is this very self-doubt and humility that he must cast aside in order to bond with Malamadre.

Malamadre is dangerous.  A man without any meaningful family ties and with no hope of release he, literally, has nothing to lose.  Life, even his own, is cheap and all that concerns him is the world of the prison and his dominant position within it.  Surrounded by goons and lunatics he is the dark heart of the prison.  He is also possessed of a native intelligence that makes him even more threatening...he may be unable to read and write but he can smell danger and is prepared to do things seemingly normal people, like Juan, would never even dream of.

On their first meeting Juan is forced to strip naked in front of a group of baying prisoners in order to prove that he is not wearing a wire.  With this simple test out of the way Juan proves himself to be a useful tool in the riot by suggesting that they keep one of the CCTV cameras intact in order to be able to control what the guards see and to facilitate negotiation.  Of course, at this point, Juan is acting out of self interest and self preservation...he knows that without the eyes of his colleagues monitoring him he is more vulnerable.

An interesting political dimension is introduced at this point as three ETA terrorists are revealed as inmates.  They are valuable bargaining chips for Malamadre and his cohorts.  Knowing that the powers that be will never risk the terrorists being killed for fear of reprisals the upper hand lies with the prisoners.  The soft voice of Juan helps guide Malamadre in this direction but again it is in order to protect himself and not to help the prisoners.

As the riot enters a lull news of it breaks amongst the general population and soon relatives have gathered at the prison gates demanding news of their loved ones behind bars.  Among them is Juans wife, Elena, who finds herself caught up in a mini-riot and being bludgeoned by a prison guard sent to break up the horde.  Caught on TV and soon relayed to Juan inside the prison the film takes a step towards its conclusion and to the conversion of Juan from wrong man in the wrong place to the right man in the right place.  His transformation is a remarkable thing to watch.

This is the sort of plot driven, original and exciting film that the British film industry seems reluctant, or incapable, of making (outside of Shane Meadows).  Football hooligans, Lahn-dahn gangsters, rom-coms and Richard Curtis movies regularly fill up the multiplexes before moving on to fill up the bargain bins in Blockbuster but something as good as "Cell 211" may well find a limited, art-house, release only and never even make it onto the shelves of any rental/purchase outlet.  Like last years "A Congregation of Ghosts" (a British film that was similarly driven by originality and plot) "Cell 211" may escape the audience that exists for it...that would be criminal.


  1. Thank you for bringing this film to light. I'll definitely keep an eye open for this one!


  2. A rip off!
    Cell Block H anyone?