Sunday, December 6, 2009

Daniel Monzón's prison thriller CELL 211 knocks SCN audience for a loop; Q&A

Movies set in prison have never been among Trust
Movies favorites, though over the decades a few have taken a permanent place. If Brute Force (1947) no longer holds up as well as we might have wanted, the classic Le Trou (1960) certainly does and most recently The Escapist bodes well to survive. All these films, like most in the prison genre, are about breaking out (or trying to) but the new -- and pretty-damn-sensational -- thriller by Daniel Monzón (shown at left) is not.

CELL 211 (Celda 211) is about prison itself and the society within it -- a microcosm of the larger one without -- and if this sounds like some slow treatise-
movie or character-study, thanks to a plot that catches fire almost immediately and burns non-stop, its 110 minutes fly by. Several things will make this film seem differ-
ent to American audiences, most apparent among these being its unique use of the prisoners who are part the Basque ETA (they're terrorists or not, depending on your view) as pawns in negotiating. Because we come to understand prison society in a more nuanced way than usual, a half dozen or more of the main characters take on remarkable depth and, sometimes, stature.

Once the movie's major plot point has been established within the first few minutes, and though the establishment is manipulated, this is done so fast, efficiently and believably that our suspension-of-disbelief is not required. As Cell 211 progresses, characters change -- or rather our view of them does, which is ever better -- and the outcome is probably about as far as possible from what you expect going in. At the Q&A that followed yesterday's screening (part of this years' Spanish Cinema Now series put on by the FSLC), the word "tragedy" was mentioned by Monzón (who co-wrote the adaptation with Jorge Guerricaechevarría, from the novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul), and for a change the term seemed relevant. And yet I don't think you will find the film a "downer." It is simply too exciting, moving and thought-provoking for that. What it finally has to say about Spain today (and about most Western-style "democracies") -- how their powers-that-be will always take the most expedient route to a quick salvation -- is worth exploring.

In a cast made up of some of Spain's best actors, Luis Tosar (Take My Eyes, Unconscious), shown right, above and in the poster, top, is magnificent and riveting as top dog among the prisoners, with Manuel Moron, Carlos Bardem (shown at bottom), Antonio Resines and Marta Etura (two photos below) providing smart support. The other lead role is taken by Argentine newcomer Alberto Ammann (shown just below), whom the director auditioned when the young man was working as a waiter. That Mr. Ammann holds his own against this storied crew bodes well for his career (since filming Cell 211 he's assumed the lead role in a new film about Lope de Vega).

Will the movie get a much-deserved American release? In his Q&A, the adapter/director noted that after the film scree-
ned at Venice and Toron-
to, he had immediate of-
fers to direct an American remake. "But I've already made this film; I don't want to do it again," he explained (to much appla-
use from the audience). But then, he did seem to assure us that we would, after all, be seeing his ori-
ginal-language version in the U.S. Let's hope.


The post-movie Q&A proved most interesting as Señor Monzón spoke about the book that inspired his film, and how he used its premise but then added a lot of new dialog, interviewing prison inmates, particularly one individual who offered a wealth of information that both he and lead actor Luis Tosar put to good use.

The director talked at length about the delight of working with Tosar, whom he calls one of the best actors in Spain and whom he noted is as short a man as the director himself, but that Tosar often comes across on screen as huge and imposing. Several months after the shoot had finished, Monzón had occasion to meet the actor for dinner, and when he arrived at the restaurant, he couldn't find the man -- who was standing right in front of him -- so different now did he appear, no longer in character for his role, Malamadre.

TrustMovies asked a question about the use of the ETA in the film, and Monzón explained that he used it almost as a kind of McGuffin because this allows the movie to become a kind of parable about Spanish society. One of his favorite scenes, and he feels it's one of the best in the film, takes place between Tosar and the prisoner who is the head of the ETA group. (Ed's note: It is a humdinger -- but there are so many of these to choose from.)

Prison life, the director told us, is full of odd humor and very like outside life -- but hugely condensed into a kind of microcosm. "The relationship that develops between Malamadre and Juan allows them both to recognize their own humanity." Did the director watch many American prison movies in order to prepare, he was asked? None at all, he told us -- and deliberately -- because he did not want to be overly influenced by these. He wanted a documentary-
like look, and so found real prison to shoot in. Once the location was found, the shoot took approximately nine weeks to complete. A full two months was devoted to editing (excellent, by Cristina Pastor; the gritty cinematography is by Carles Gusi).

Has the film changed Spain's prison system at all? "While it is very successful and causing a lot of talk," the director explained, "we will still have to see. It is only a movie, but it is sparking a lot of debate." About that U.S. release, first Monzón seemed to be saying there would be none, but that a remake was on tap. ("Both Paul Haggis and David Fincher have been in talks to direct, and I will definitely go see the movie if it ever gets made!" he told us.) But then he seemed to assure us that, yes, an America release of the original film was would indeed be forthcoming.

Photos above are from the film itself, except that of director Monzón.

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