As is the way of things, Spanish prison movie Cell 211 has been described as ‘This year’s A Prophet’. It’s an easy comparison, as both are foreign language movies based mainly in prison. But they are very different movies (and ironically, both were originally released in 2009).

Written and directed by Daniel Monzón, Cell 211 is the story of two men on different sides in the middle of a prison riot. Malamadre is the inmate leading the riot, while Juan Oliver is a guard posing as an inmate from cell 211, attempting to survive.

The story begins as Juan is given a guided tour of the prison the day before he is due to begin his career as a guard. The prison is in a state of disrepair, and a piece of the ceiling collapses, striking Juan on the head. Panicked, his guide puts him into the vacant cell 211 while another guard races off to get help. Simultaneously, Malamadre escapes custody and triggers a full-scale riot, and as it spreads through the prison, the guards leave Juan alone in the cell as he passes out. After being discovered by one of Malamadre’s henchmen, Juan invents a story to convince Malamadre that he is an inmate that was only transferred into cell 211 earlier in the day. Meanwhile, the prison guards admit to their mistake, as they realise that as well as Juan, another guard is trapped inside.

The prisoners soon make it clear to the authorities that they have taken ETA (a Basque terrorist group) members hostage, and will execute them if their demands are not met. News of this triggers riots and ETA attacks around the country, and the prison staff find themselves running out of time to end the rioting and restore order to the prison. Juan (played by Alberto Ammann) and Malamadre (Luis Tosar) dominate the movie, and both put in superb performances. Malamadre is not the mindless thug you would expect, and he acts more like a union representative trying to calmly negotiate than a prisoner threatening to kill people to get his way. He is an imposing figure, always in control, but clearly capable of extreme acts to make his point. As the movie progresses, Juan finds himself with more and more reasons to side with the prisoners, as he learns of the treatment the inmates receive at the hands of the aggressive guards, and as his wife becomes involved outside the prison gates.

To explain more would be to spoil the end of the movie, but Cell 211 is an expertly written and performed movie, one that swept the board at the 2010 Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars). Dramatic and powerful, it blurs the lines of right and wrong, and will leave you questioning whose side you should really be on.

Unsurprisingly, rumours of an American remake are already in the air, and although Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) is apparently producing it and may even direct it, it’s hard to see how he could hope to match the powerful original.

David Dougan

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