I really have no delicate way to put this: Celda 211 is probably the darkest movie I have seen in a very long time.
Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) is due to start his job as a prison guard soon. He leaves his pregnant wife to get the lay of the land a day early, but life — as they say — has other plans. It turns out that this is the last day that three ETA prisoners are in the cell block, and Malamadre (Luis Tosar) — the leader of the general prisoner population — isn’t about to let this opportunity slide.
The prison is in absolutely atrocious shape; it’s literally crumbling. A chink of plaster even falls down through the protective netting and strikes Juan on the head. Instead of taking him directly to the infirmary, his hosts lay him out in the recently-vacated cell 211. And while they go to bring back a doctor, Malamadre makes his move and touches off a prison riot. Juan is caught in the middle of things, and must find a way to make his way out and back to his wife.
As this situation unspools, power struggles among the prisoners, among the guards, between the guards and the government, and at the governmental level all come to crisis points, making the prison riot in Zamora into a powderkeg ready to blow up the entire country. Which, obviously, the authorities cannot allow to happen.
As I said before, this is an incredibly dark film. The conditions inside the prison are terrible before the riot begins, and bestial as it plays out. The action is relentless in its search for new miseries to explore. Along the way the deplorable living conditions are highlighted, along with the sense of community emerging as in Lord of the Flies, the political brinksmanship, and the brutality inherent in the prison system.
In retrospect, the story may not quite hang together, and a number of plot turns may seem overly convenient, but in the midst of everything the urgency of the action propels things forward past any amount of questioning. The wonderful, drum-heavy original score by Roque Baños may have something to do with it as well.
And yet I keep coming back to the fact that I cannot recall any movie being so singularly miserable. There are no uplifting sidelines — no respite from the downward spiral. What few moments of happiness are to be found are only memories, and reminders of exactly how much has been lost.
In the end it’s astonishing that one stone is left on another, given how thoroughly the action ravages every aspect of the film. And yet somehow the government manages to keep just enough of a cover on this incident to sweep it under the rug. The downfall is never quite severe enough to prevent it from happening over and over again. And that depressing truth is where Cenda 211 leaves us.
Worth it: yes, so long as you’re forewarned that this is in no part a happy movie.
Bechdel test: fail.