Cell 211 is a perverse melding of a charming love story, which turns wistful, and a prison uprising spanning one day, and which might remind you of the Attica prison uprising in 1971. This day in Juan Oliver’s (Alberto Ammann) life can go down as the most absurd and tragic almost first day on the job.
Mistaken identity is at the story’s core: Juan’s injured by an accident, his tour guides, and future peers place him in a newly empty cell, 211, just at the moment that the inmates take the prison – That moment upturns his life. The inmates, and their leader Malamadre (Luis Tosar) mistake him for one of them and he must play along in order to live. If the consequences weren’t dire – death or worse – it would make a black comedy.
This is a Spanish language film, by Daniel Monzón, with bits of Basque thrown in, and subtitles in white. Cell 211 opens on August 6th, in Minneapolis’s St. Anthony Main, for Minnesota Film Arts, where it’ll play for one week.
The opening scene tells you that something awful, even grisly, has just happened. The story starts with a jaw-dropping scene where an inmate begins to mutilate his arms. Most films particularly American ones start viewers off smoothly, this one was like, “eh, why bother?” It sets the tone for an emotional, thematic thrill ride that Hollywood provides only every several years. This came from Spain, so never mind.
Although Cell 211 isn’t a Hitchcockian story, it harkens to one of his stock themes and characters. Juan is the ordinary person stuck in the extraordinary situation. The story’s bizarre ironies and tragic twists are classically Hitchcock, making North by Northwest, from 1959, pop to mind. Specifically a spy’s line, which describes Roger Thornhill’s situation: “It’s all so horribly sad. How is it a feel like laughing?”
You’re plunked into a foreign situation, mistaken for the kind of person you could never be, which fills you with adrenaline as you make yourself a part of a den of murderers and worse. No one wants to live that scenario, but it and this film are a heck of a ride. Unlike in the United States, the prisoners here wear no uniforms, but blue collar, industrial clothing. All Juan has to do to fit in with his new “peers” is to shed accessories that will reveal himself.
Cell 211 is far better than average for a few reasons: it boasts a semi-complex and refreshing structure, with traces of Japan’s Rashôman, from 1950, and a special use of mistaken identity that allows for perverse and tragic twists, which otherwise would fall flat. The story alternates between three different locations and places in time, and between the tragic and the tranquil: Juan goes to the prison, his imminent workplace, to get his feel of the land. After being injured, he’s caught behind his future “enemies’” lines, and accidentally mistaken for one of them. This chunk of the film mixes with a segment from earlier that day, which builds up to a splendid, and utterly surprising, slight romantic subplot. That’s his love story with his wife. Before he goes to the prison, Juan and his wife chat, mock, and make love to each other.
A different, morose, but also slight subplot balances out the romantic one, where shadowy debriefings with a prison boss and a guard after the incident has passed. The first is taciturn, the other empathetic: morose and shaken. It helped viewers find closure to Cell 211′s chaos.
Now for a little math. Many of the characters are interesting. Five of them are important. Three of those are pivotal: Juan, Malamadre, which sounds like Bad Mother, the inmate who leads the prison’s most violent section, and Elena, Juan’s wife, who plays a incidental, and passive, but pivotal role. The men compete for the lead, at least in our minds. Their personas are disparate, but compel our attention equally. There is Juan, who should probably question working as a prison guard. He’s an affable husband who might not be enough of an Alpha male, seems more like a library manager or a grocer than a prison guard. He belongs in a suburb, mowing his lawn, not mowing down an inmate who has a shank poised against his jugular.
The leader of the uprising, Malamadre, while unsettling at least at first, is more rational and reasonable than we hear at the start. Then again, Hannibal Lector could be a great conversationalist too. Malamadre is quick with violence, but he’ll take the time to step back if talking or thinking will give him what he wants as easily. He’s a brawny, highly intelligent, calculating criminal, with a goatee and a voice that’s so gravelly you wonder how long and intensely he’s been smoking. He’s so well drawn, with such magnetism that, while this is Juan’s story, he and Malamadre become a surprising and unsettling duo. Sometimes they compete for starring attention.
But the barely likely connection between Malamadre and Juan allows the story to broach a very subtle story about the fragility of a moral compass. How easily it can be detoured or perverted. A law man meets a vicious, daunting criminal, then a heart wrenching tragedy strikes and that moral man finds that the road to or line between the moral & legal and their opposites have grayed and frayed in his mind. This, after circumstances put him off-balance and push him toward an abyss that’s darker and more of a hell than merely being caught among those who are hungry, rabid wolves.
As splendid as Cell 211 is, it has problems.
Specific ideas are sacrosanct in film:
- You don’t remake Alfred Hitchcock
- …or Martin Scorsese, and some others, and
- You never have someone attack an obviously vulnerable person. …Unless you do it deftly. This film does it so.
Malamadre and Juan bond hastily and too slickly to convince us. Malamadre’s reputation having preceded his first scene, foreshadows the sort of foe with which the bosses and guards must contend. While Mal is smart, he’s there for a reason. He’s hardened, vicious, and doesn’t mind killing someone, if there’s a purpose. Juan is not. Their bond is forced, but it’s drawn with such care that you won’t notice unless you love to think through or debate that kind of detail.
Few films are flawless. Still, if you’re into grades: 4.5.