Monzon’s Cell 211 takes genre film to compelling heights
A standing ovation followed the Venice Days screening of Cell 211 [+see also:
interview: Daniel Monzón
film profile] by Spanish director Daniel Monzon. The prison drama was presented by the director and a large part of its powerful cast: Luis Tosar, newcomer Alberto Ammann, Antonio Resines, Carlos Bardem and Marta Etura.
In the film, Ammann plays Juan Oliver, a novice prison official who starts work the same day the prisoners organize a mutiny. Over the course of 30 hours, Juan will come to realize that the good guys and bad guys are not necessarily who they seem. Trapped inside the jail, he feigns himself a prisoner, relying on his resources and slowly siding with the inmates, whose demands are simply to be treated as human beings.
Cell 211 harkens back to the well-known saying: treat people like animals and they become animals. Only Monzon goes further in his gripping social commentary, to show that the “cage-keepers” may be the biggest animals of all, and perhaps the first to lose their humanity in the vicious cycle of everyday prison violence.
Monzon says the story came from a novel the producers passed on to him, which he read in one night and immediately decided to do. He explains: “I was interested in how a supposedly normal person like Juan discovers unexpected things in himself. We think we know who we are but when placed in unbearable situations of enormous tension, we may discover we have a tenderness we didn’t know we have, like Malamadre (a buffed-up and riveting Tosar), or the opposite, like Juan.”
The director also condemns social hierarchies, in which the “upper” strata almost always waits for orders to come from even higher above before acting, like the film’s prison officials. Yet they rarely do come, and in situations where lives hang in the balance, this paralysis can lead to even greater inhumanity, or bloodshed.
Tosar said all the actors did extensive research for their roles. As the leader of the mutiny, he in particular met with murderers: “It was like being in front a legend like Mick Jagger, yet you know this is someone who at any moment might snap and kill you as well.” He infuses Malamadre with great sensibility and depth, an anti-hero that viewers root for as much as they do for Juan, as the two bond and find they share the same morality and loyalty.
Ammann is also impressive in his screen debut, and says he has Monzon’s great skill in working with actors to thank for his performance. In fact, Cell 211 rises above the genres of prison move and social critique precisely because of its solid cast, which the director spent eight months bringing together. “Films like these, without special effects, depend on their cast,” he says. “How else can you maintain tension and audiences’ attention for almost two hours?” Also of note is Bardem’s turn as a deadly Colombian prisoner.
Celda 211 was produced for approximately €3.5m by Spain’s Vaca Films, Morena Films and Telecinco Cinema. French sales agent Films Distribution already has offers from throughout the world, and has so far sold the film to Germany, Australia and New Zealand. The film will be released on November 13 in Spain by Paramount Pictures.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.