Prison drama sets a new guard behind riot lines
How far over the top does a trashy political prison drama have to go until it makes its point? I’d say it’s the moment the new guard uses a piece of the toilet to shank a co-worker. Future first-day-on-the-job movies will have a tough time topping the first day in “Cell 211.’’ Juan (Alberto Ammann) gets a tour of his new workplace, one of the facilities in Spain’s notorious prison system. Plaster (or something) falls from the ceiling and knocks him out. This event happens almost cosmically, since, at that very moment, the residents of this particularly unruly block happen to be staging a riot.
Juan’s guides drag him to the safety of an empty cell — number 211 — then, more or less, abandon him behind enemy lines, to use an apt war cliché. The insurgent inmates think it’s his first day . . . as a prisoner! Juan wisely assumes the role. He’s nervous at first but his nerves don’t last long. He’s so convincing that the leader of the block, a generously goateed pit bull of a gentleman named Malamadre (Luis Tosar), makes him his number two. Meanwhile, the prison’s administrative staff watch what’s happening on the one surviving surveillance camera for their entertainment — I mean edification — while strategizing how to quell the uproar and extract their employee.
The movie’s director, Daniel Monzón, wrote the script with Jorge Guerricaechevarría, and in the name of singeing the indignities of the prison system they’ve left nothing to chance. It’s not enough to have a guard understand prison life as the guarded. The rioting inmates’ concerned relatives arrive at the prison gates desperate to know whether the dead and injured include someone they love. Of course they start a riot. Of course the new violence includes Juan’s concerned wife (Marta Etura). Of course she arrives at the gates six months pregnant. How long until her husband’s cover is blown? How long until her water prematurely breaks (or something)? Will the insurgent inmates' reedy Basque-terrorist hostages be killed?
What this movie lacks in plausibility (which is almost everything), it makes up for with authentic adrenaline — and Spanish Goya Awards (it won eight this year). Monzón seems proud of his ability to stage bystanders being beaten with nightsticks and inmates ragefully destroying their cellblock. You can almost hear him, as keyed up as his prisoners: We need a shot of a severed ear!
A lot of the energy here comes from the acting. You worry that Ammann won’t be able to find the ruthlessness to stay afloat in such a ripe histrionic environment. But the script pulls enough strings for his performance to achieve a depth of human ugliness. Juan, in fact, is so good as an ersatz convict that Malamadre, whose name appears to be Spanish for “Shaft,’’ explodes with fear that he’s being upstaged.
Tosar, for his part, has no reason to worry. He wears a sleeveless sweat shirt, a bald head, and many extra pounds (at least 5 of which belong to that goatee). He sounds as if he’s being strangled. The character’s rumbling vigor is something new for Tosar, who often seems sleepy and arrogant at the same time. He’d be even more intimidating in a less absurd movie. But it’s enough that this man only looks like he would hurt you. Otherwise, he seems like a nice guy. That’s part of what the movie wants. The prison’s suits are cowards. The government is inhumane. The guards are brutal. The terrorists, who look almost professorial, are the worst of the worst. But the inmates, while far from lovable, are ultimately human savages. Like some unionized teachers and municipal workers, they don’t want the world, just a better benefits package.
“Cell 211’’ is really like a decent episode of “Prison Break.’’ It has authentic anger, but the film never feels less than rigged. There’s a great Sidney Lumet movie struggling to get out and damn the breaks in the system. Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,’’ which was released in the United States last winter, illuminated the castes of French prison life with gusto. The bar, though, for a prison epic was set astronomically high with “Carandiru,’’ Hector Babenco’s strange, tragic 2003 Brazilian prison spectacle. That movie was among the few to embody the hell of incarceration without a fear of heatstroke. It isn’t that “Cell 211’’ isn’t mad, but its anger lacks dramatic heft. It’s the prison drama having a temper tantrum.