SIFF Review: Cell 211 Packs a Punch

Cell 211 (aka Celda 211) is a clock-ticking, edge-of-your-seat prison drama that packs all the expected punches -- danger, suspense, double crosses -- and a few audiences might not anticipate, which makes the Goya Award-sweeping (Spain's Oscars) movie's impact that much more powerful.

As the film opens, an inmate in 211 lets his lighter flame lick the flattened edge of a cigarette, and then slits his wrists with the paper blade. Cut to Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann), a handsome 30-year-old guard with a pretty, pregnant wife at home. Tomorrow' s his first day on the job, but he' s come in a day early to learn the ropes and impress everyone with his initiative. During his tour of a cell block renovation with two other guards, something bursts through the wire screen above them and hits him on the head. The guards drag him into the now empty cell 211 to let him rest for a second -- clearly a mistake, clear from the question guard Almansa asks himself in the foreboding flash forward that follows: "Why didn' t we take him directly to the infirmary"? The inmates are taking over the prison. When the guards realize this, they abandon the half-conscious Juan in cell 211 and run for their lives.

Acting unexpectedly brave and resourceful, when Juan come to he rids himself of his shoelaces, visitor ID, and anything else that might identify him as a prisoner. He' s about to remove his wedding ring when an inmate discovers him and takes him to his (and the other inmates') leader, Malamadre (or in English, "Bad Mother," played by Luis Tosar). From then on Juan's life depends on deception. With just the right touch of toughness and attitude, he not only convinces Malamadre that he' s an inmate, but manages to make himself useful to him and gain his trust, respect, and friendship, earning the nickname "Calzones." (Or "underpants" in reference to him not wearing any. How does Malamadre know? It' s an awkward-amusing scene you'll just have to see for yourself). Malamadre trusts him despite the suspicions of other inmates like Colombian gang leader Apache, not an easy thing to do amidst a prison siege where even the hostages -- Basque ETA terrorists -- are deadly.

Yet director/co-writer Daniel Monzon does danger, and violence, with an almost delicate hand -- relying on tense realism and visceral fear rather than gratuitous gore. And by staying away from the predictable, his adaptation of the Spanish novel by the same name maintains a nerve-racking intensity. Flashbacks to tender, luminous moments between Juan and his wife, safe, serene, and happy at home make his dire present all the more harrowing. Plus they amp up the emotional stakes, as it' s clear what he stands to lose. In Cell 211 good and evil is also unpredictable, and morality is elusive. As Juan writes up Malamadre's demands for the prison negotiator, they include no more doctoring through bars. Complains Maladmadre, "No wonder they can't tell cancer from diarrhea." In this guards vs. inmates showdown with a social agenda, separating the good from the bad guys isn' t so simple -- especially with Malamadre, a criminal capable of surprising nobility. Or Ultrilla, a guard with questionable tactics. And even Juan, who disappears more and more into his criminal cover. While Ammann is formidable as Juan, Tosar undeniably steals the show; he's charismatic, captivating, and even funny as he delivers wry one-liners. His award-wining portrayal, and Cell 211, will likely linger in your thoughts long after the credits roll.

Grade: A-