Prison dramas are abundant, as are TV series depicting life behind bars that continue to fascinate audiences as they depict a pressure-cooker microcosm of life. So making a drama that stands out internationally is a tall order. But something quite unique about writer/director Daniel Monzón’s adaptation of Cell 211 (Celda 211)is the marriage of sheer viciousness that is never glorified with a very real and touching bromance that blurs our perceptions of good and bad, automatically and subconsciously draw at the start.
Cell 211 is the story of a two men on different sides of prison life, a newbie guard called Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) and a murderer/lifer called Malamadre (Luis Tosar), who find they are in the same situation when a riot breaks out at Spanish prison. To survive the revolt, Oliver – known as ‘Calzones’ or ‘underpants’ after being forced to strip on their first encounter – must pretend to be an inmate. But as the situation escalates into an international media frenzy Oliver finds it harder to tow the moralistic and law-abiding line in his pretence, and after a personal tragedy, visits demons he never knew existed.
The casting of Ammann is strong enough, but Tosar is the film’s greatest success. The actor is exceptional portraying Malamadre as a human being with nuances, rather than a feared caged animal. Obviously, the dangerous thin line that Oliver treads with him needs to be re-emphasised throughout with punctuations of bloody violence, but their understanding of each other’s passions and curious bond is a striking one, and the film’s pivotal lifeline. As the other characters’ allegiances waver and falter on both sides of the law, there is a certain respect upheld for Oliver and Malamadre who just want a fair and justice existence and treatment when the event is over.
The shocking twist comes with Oliver’s actions, after his primal urges take over his sound-minded ones. Even so, the catalyst is understandable in the circumstances, as are Malamadre’s feral instincts, which are compellingly and finely balanced between nurturer-attacker that make for engaging dramatic play, as you wonder where his reactions will lead next. This heightens a sense of imminent danger throughout.
The greater depth this Spanish prison drama offers is due to the prison environment being more of a side issue or trapped setting for the crux of the developing relationship between two very different men, who with social status stripped away, have the same life values.
Monzón’s Cell 211 speaks on many levels about the nature of man and his passion for life, regardless of being incarcerated, translating well in any language. It will be interesting to see what Crash director Paul Haggis produces in the Hollywood remake – hopefully less ‘Die Hard in prison’, and not forgetting the dramatic emotional swings in this. Catch Monzón’s version first, though.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie
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