Cell 211 (2009)

Director:  Daniel Monzon
Cast:  Luis Tosar, Alberto Ammann, Antonio Resines, Carlos Bardem, Marta Etura.
Plot:  The story of two men on different sides of a prison riot - the inmate leading the rebellion and the young guard trapped in the revolt, who poses as a prisoner in a desperate attempt to survive the ordeal.

Genre:  Action / Drama / Thriller
Awards:  -
Runtime:  113min
Rating:  R21 for violence and language.

One of the highlights of the 22nd European Union Film Festival (Singapore), Cell 211 comes with the expectation of not only being critically praised, but also being a rousing box-office success in its native country.

The Spanish prison drama is a stinging attack on issues related to authority, politics, and human rights, while at the same time, providing audiences with an involving, and at times, suspenseful big-screen experience.

Cell 211 follows Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) in a voluntary orientation visit to a prison that he will very soon be working at.  A small accident leaves him temporarily dazed and slightly bleeding on the head.  Because the infirmary is occupied, he is brought to an empty cell while his would-be colleagues seek medical help.  A violent prison riot breaks out suddenly, leaving Juan with no choice but to take on the persona of a new prisoner to survive.

Directed by Daniel Monzon, Cell 211 is Monzon's breakthrough film after previously making three features that have been largely forgettable.  It hooks you from the start, with a graphic prologue that sees a man cutting open his veins, and wastes no time in setting up Juan's predicament.

Spanish cinema has sometimes been unfairly burdened by the films of Pedro Almodovar, whose name is not only synonymous with, but also the allusion to the culturally-specific arthouse dramas that the country's most famous cinematic export produces year after year.

Monzon's successful effort with Cell 211 is a testament to Spanish cinema's potential to reach out to a far wider audience.  It's not surprising to see why.  First, it is set in a high-security prison.  Second, the protagonist is trapped with no way out in an adapt-or-die situation.  Last,  but most importantly, human rights has been an especially touchy issue post-9/11.

Prison dramas are often inspiring like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or The Green Mile (1999), or they could be brutal like Hunger (2008). Cell 211 is thematically a close cousin of the latter, though it is far from being the intimate character study that Steve McQueen's powerful film is.

Monzon opts for a mainstream approach with more action, more suspense, and more dynamic interactions between guards and prisoners.  The political subtext is never treated with a heavy hand; it is effortlessly integrated into the narrative.

Police brutality against prisoners (and even innocent civilians), the issue of solitary confinement, and the inability of the Spanish government to mount a quick response are symptomatic of a post-9/11 world ragged by insecurity, fear, and vengeance.

The irony is that the rioters in the film, led by Malamadre (Luis Tosar), are more organized and resolute than the collective effort by the authorities to thwart them.  Cell 211 is entertaining, violent, and features excellent performances by Tosar and Ammann. Accompanied by a suspenseful and brooding score, it is also chilling when it needs to be.

Verdict: A gripping prison drama from Spain that is also a stinging commentary on politics and human rights.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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