15 July 2011
Soaking in blood, sweat and everything else, this hard as a hammer Spanish prison drama is based around a wonderfully inventive concept – a guard trapped in a riot has to pretend to be a convict to avoid being killed. It’s a beautifully simple idea and one that keeps the audience on its toes throughout.
Eager to impress, Juan (Alberto Ammann) leaves his pregnant wife (Marta Etura) at home in order to go to work a day early. Unfortunately for him, all hell is just about to break loose. After an accident knocks him out, Juan wakes up in the cell of the title. He has to think fast. Or die.
Central to the disturbance is Malamadre – literally ‘bad mother’ in English - (Luis Tosar) whose trust Juan must win in order to survive. Their relationship becomes deep, full of complexities and contradictions – as well as more than a little homo-eroticism, particularly when Juan is forced to strip in a humiliating ‘welcome’ to the prison – and one that defines the film.
Cell 211 is an uncompromisingly grim experience and it presents a pretty bleak outlook for the Spanish prison system. However, the prisoners are never presented as anything less than human. There is also the fascinating realisation that without the bars, chains and locks, there is not that much that separates the guards from the prisoners.