In Spain's answer to French prison epic A Prophet, a new guard (Alberto Ammann) must pass himself off as an inmate after being caught in a full-scale riot. But while intending only to make it out with his life, the desperate father-to-be becomes the closest confidante of the rebellion's ferocious leader (Luis Tosar). Set over 24 heart-stopping hours, Daniel Monzon's thriller is an unrelenting test of stomach and nerve.
Anyone can have a bad day at the office. Fortunately, most people don't have one before they've officially started work. Unlike rookie prison officer Juan (Ammann).
Keen to make a good impression by showing up a day early, the new recruit is being shown the ropes when he receives a bump on the head. Next thing he knows, he's alone in a cell while on the other side of the door, it's bedlam.
The inmates have taken control. And with notorious lifer Malamadre (Tosar, literally a "bad mother") in charge, any guards trapped in the lockdown are in serious trouble.
His options limited, Juan enters the fray as a new prisoner, earning Malamadre's trust with a mixture of brains and bravado. Thanks to him, negotiations can get underway.
But while Juan is a concern, the authorities are more worried about the three high-ranking ETA terrorists Malamadre is holding hostage. If they come to harm, Spain's entire prison system could go up in smoke.
With the SWAT team ready to go, tensions rise on both sides. Inside, Juan comes under suspicion from Malamadre's equally shifty lieutenant Apache (Carlos 'brother of Javier' Bardem), while his pregnant wife Elena (Marta Etura) is caught amidst the prisoners' angry relatives outside.
Shakespearean in scope and superbly paced, this tale from the jailhouse rocks.
It's been argued that the film relies on more than the odd contrivance, but so what? From a dramatic and viewing perspective, director Monzon and his cast push exactly the right buttons at the right time.
True, Juan's chosen career seems somewhat risky for one so obviously committed to his wife and unborn child. But the lovey-dovey stuff make an interesting counterpoint to his increasingly brotherly relationship with Malamadre.
Volatile but chillingly reasonable, Tosar's Malamadre makes a refreshing change from the megalomaniac psychos you often see running the cinematic big house.
And from heavy handed chief screw to the remorseful guard who left Juan behind, even the stock characters are credibly played (though special mention goes to comedian Luis Zahera for his mesmerising turn as the freakish lag Releches).
It's not the most profound indictment of the penal system you'll see, but while the claret flows, this is no wall-to-wall bloodbath. In a genre where the expectation of violence is so high, rare is the film that manages to shock and startle with such regularity.
Punching way beyond its relatively low budget, Cell 211 justifies every one of its eight Goya awards (Spanish Oscars). When it comes to jailhouse revolutionaries, A Prophet is no longer in solitary confinement.