Cell 211 is a prison riot film. Mild-mannered and taciturn prison guard Juan is being given an induction tour of his new workplace – a notorious Madrid prison. In bizarre and briefly farcical circumstances he finds himself marooned in a cell just as a riot breaks out.
Juan’s reaction is to pretend to be a prisoner to escape the retribution of the inmates seeking revenge on the warders for their humiliation and bullying. Juan’s plan is to be an informant for the prison authorities while pretending to help the riot leader, Malamadre. But he goes into reverse when he discovers his pregnant partner has meanwhile become a victim of the same state apparatus he is helping.
The personal relationship between Juan and Malamadre is explored and developed, although little emerges of Malamadre’s life outside prison, nor indeed those of the other inmates. Whereas Juan’s motivation for joining the prison service and his later bloody reprisals is explained by flashbacks to his domestic life, this is not done for any other inmates. Nor is there any acknowledgement of the histories of the ETA prisoners, who are simply portrayed as hardened terrorists, devoid of principles or aspirations other than to murder or bomb.
Having said that, there is a political edge to the film. The trashing of the prison interior during the riot is mirrored by the cynicism and brutality of the prison regime. The frequency of self-harm and suicide which characterises the despair of prisoners across the world is powerfully illustrated in the opening scene. Violence is part of the prisoners’ lives inside, whether they are victims or perpetrators, but so too is the violence of the state outside the prison gates. This is exemplified when the SWAT force “unscrambles” just as they are about to launch an attack on the prison rioters, and turn their aggression on the crowd outside waiting for news of their family members.
But mostly, this is a story of the solidarity of people acting together to end dehumanising conditions, and a story of trust and betrayal, themes that create the suspense and all the qualities of a great thriller. Not to be missed!
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