I have discovered something today. The Spanish are total badasses.
We ain’t in Shawshank anymore.
Juan, a new guard at a prison in Zamora, Spain, decides to make a good impression by reporting in a day early to get the lay of the land. While on a tour of the notorious DSS section, he is injured by some falling debris. His guides carry him into the recently vacated cell 211 so they can bring the medic to him, but before they can get help, the prisoners revolt. Abandoned by his new colleagues, but luckily not yet in uniform, the dazed Juan must pretend to be a convict in order to stay alive; a distinction that becomes increasingly vague as he learns about the reason behind the riot, and that’s before the ringleader, the psychotic Malamadre, takes a liking to him.
This film wastes no time getting to the good stuff. The riot starts within about ten minutes and for the next hour and three-quarters it’s just an ever-steeper drop into a hell that Dante would be proud of. The first major revelation is that the prisoners aren’t doing this just for the fun of it; they have a real political point to make about the mistreatment and violence they are subjected to. In fact from a strict storytelling perspective the protagonist, the hero, of this film is Malamadre himself. This Bad Mother is brought to iconic life by Luis Tosar, who is rightly huge in his homeland but best known to English-speaking audiences as the villain in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. He gives this (at first glance) stock psycho role a humanity and sense of decency that is shockingly unexpected, although his capacity for violence remains on a hair-trigger throughout. It is no wonder Juan behaves as he does, even without the danger of his secret being exposed.
Speaking of Juan, relative newcomer Alberto Ammann does an exceptional job with this very difficult role. He takes what seems like a collection of clichés – inexperienced young man with a pretty, pregnant wife, starting a new job – and manages to craft a fully-rounded and believable performance. As his situation becomes increasingly more tenuous and his actions increasingly more like those of his new comrades in arms in order to maintain his cover, the line where Juan ends and Calzones begins starts to blur. Calzones (Spanish for ‘pants’) is Juan’s new jailhouse nickname, given him by Malamadre after the prisoners discover he’s been going commando that day.
The prisoners in DSS are all referred to by nicknames, a constant reminder of the dehumanising nature of the system for dealing with these violent offenders. It is this system that the revolt is fighting against: a system that tacitly endorses regular beatings to the point of disfigurement; the denial of medical care (the eponymous cell’s former tenant had been complaining of headaches for months. After his suicide – shown in the film’s opening scene – the coroner found a brain tumour “the size of a kiwi”*); and excessive and unjustified solitary confinement. Malamadre is willing to use any bargaining chip at his disposal to achieve his goal of the exposure and improvement of their conditions, including the trio of Eta terrorists who happen to be passing through the DSS, adding a whole other layer of political statement to the situation. Director and co-writer (along with the extravagantly named Jorge Guerricaechevarría) Daniel Monzón chose to shoot the movie in a real prison with some actual inmates as extras, adding a level of verisimilitude to the points he is making. Monzón’s statement with this film echoes that of his shaven-headed protagonist – highlighting the real-life harsh treatment of those held in Spanish prisons – except he is using a camera instead of a shiv.
Aside from a couple of brief flashbacks in Juan’s apartment the entire film takes place in the prison and it is a truly ominous place, all whitewashed brick walls and clanging iron gates. The DSS is a warren of staircases and cell tiers but you never feel lost thanks to the capable work of cinematographer Carles Gusi and art director Antón Laguna. Despite Tosar and Ammann practically running away with the film, I feel bad about not mentioning some of the other actors so here are a few more who knock it out of the park: Antonio Resines as the chief guard (and main bad guy) José Utrilla; Marta Etura as Juan’s better half Elena; and Carlos Bardem as Apache, leader of the prison’s Colombian contingent and one of Malamadre’s inner circle. Interestingly, Bardem is also a novelist(!) and, yes, older brother of Javier.
Just in case you hadn’t realised it yet, this is a seriously brilliant film. And of course there is an American remake in the works. Paul Haggis is developing it, possibly for himself to direct, and it is apparently going to be due in 2013. I’m really worried they’re gonna fuck it up.
*I’m assuming they mean the fruit, not the animal.