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Review: ‘Celda 211’

Cinema en tu Idioma Offers Darker FIlms in Second Month

Above: Alberto Ammann and Luis Tosar star in "Celda 211."

Last month Cinema en Tu Idioma kicked off its 11th season with a pair of romantic comedies. This month they highlight a gritty prison drama, “Celda 211” (opened September 10 for one week only at the UltraStar Mission Valley Theaters at Hazard Center) that’s much more up my alley.

This month the San Diego Latino Film Festival pairs Spain’s “Celda 211 (Cell 211)” with Mexico’s “Cinco Dias Sin Nora (Nora’s Will)” for it’s second month of Cinema en tu Idioma programming. I was unable to screen “Cinco Dias Sin Nora” in advance but was impressed with “Celda 211.”

Luis Tosar at the center of the prison riot in "Celda 211"

IFC

Above: Luis Tosar at the center of the prison riot in "Celda 211"

“Celda 211” opens with Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) arriving a day early for his job as a prison warden. He wanted to come see what the place was like and get a tour. But he ends up getting a much more vivid inside perspective of the prison that he could have ever anticipated. Oliver gets injured by some falling debris in the aging and decrepit facility. The guards he’s with put him in empty cell 211 while they go get medical help. But while they are gone a prison riot breaks out and Oliver is stuck inside with the inmates. Oliver quickly realizes that if the prisoners think he’s a guard, he’ll either be killed or held hostage so he pretends to be newly incarcerated to save his skin. But what he slowly discovers is that the prisoners are not just mindlessly rioting but have some valid demands about abusive guards and bad prison conditions.

Director Daniel Monzón delivers this prison tale in a fairly direct, no nonsense style. There’s an occasional stylistic flourish (as when the SWAT team assaults the prison) but for the most part this is a gritty story with an emphasis on character detail and interaction. Fortunately for the film there’s a real chemistry between Ammann’s Oliver and the lead prisoner Malamadre played by Luis Tosar. They engage in a kind of cat and mouse game as they test each other out with Malamadre trying to figure out if this new inmate is trustworthy. There’s a slowly developing sense of respect between the two men and they both seem better then their colleagues, and that is dangerous for both of them.

Some guards prove as violent as the inmates in "Celda 211"

IFC

Above: Some guards prove as violent as the inmates in "Celda 211"

Monzón paces the film well and builds tension. He smartly flashes forward early on – cutting to a guard saying that he didn’t know why they didn’t take Oliver to the infirmary rather than leaving him in a cell. This quickly hooks us as we wonder right at the start how badly this whole thing will turn out. He also keeps us trapped for most of the film inside the prison with Oliver. This builds a claustrophobic atmosphere that begins to weigh heavily on the characters as well as the viewers. Monzón also deserves credit for not flinching. The story has a logical progression to take and he doesn’t pull back to try and find an inappropriately happy or hopeful ending. He’s looking at bleak circumstances and he delivers a compelling tale but one that does find its affecting moments of humanity.

“Celda 211” (unrated but recommended for mature audiences and in Spanish with English subtitles) is a solid and effective prison drama with a pair of impressive lead performances. The film will only play through Thursday so please make an effort to check it out.

Companion viewing: “A Prophet,” “Brubaker,” “Carandiru”

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