A young guard pretends to be one of the inmates during a prison riot in Cell 211, a thriller that won everything in sight at Spain's equivalent to the Oscars.
Juan (Alberto Ammann) is excited to have found himself a new job and is touring the prison in Zamora with a couple of his fellow guards. With regard to the prisoners, "Get yourself an inside guy," the other guards advise Juan, and, "Never trust them." You hope Juan is paying attention, because he'll shortly be put to the test.
While the men investigate that part of the prison where the really hardened criminals are warehoused, Juan has a medical issue. The other two guards take him into an empty cell to sit down, and at that moment, a riot begins.
When the other guards run for their lives, Juan is left alone to fend for himself. Injured and terrified, he immediately decides to pass himself off as a prisoner.
Watching Juan survive by his wits makes the first act of Cell 211 an edge-of-the-seat scary pleasure. In addition to convincing the terrifying criminal kingpin Malamadre (Luis Tosar) that he too is a killer and a desperado, Juan must also try to survive any SWAT response and make contact with the good guys without the prisoners noticing his duplicity.
It's not tough to guess the structure of the story, and what slowly starts to change is Juan's idea of just who the good guys are. The plot thickens when the regular thugs grab themselves a few Basque terrorists as hostages, for now they've really got the upper hand. The Eta bunch injects a political element into the narrative, you may be sure.
Juan's situation is further complicated when his pregnant wife finds out he's trapped with the prisoners. By the time Juan's own changing loyalties have further upped the violence, you know Cell 211 can't be moving toward any sort of cheerful conclusion.
Cell 211 is both gritty and gripping, and if the second half is not quite as electrifying as the first, much is forgiven because the story is so clever.
And the movie manages to make its social and political points without smacking a viewer over the head.
Cell 211 has won eight Goyas and 17 other major film awards. The film is in Spanish, with English subtitles; an English-language remake is underway, allegedly with Paul Haggis writing and perhaps also directing.