Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cell 211

(Alberto Amann in Cell 211/ Canal+Espana)
There is a certain strand of art film that can find nothing better to do than wallow in wretched imagery. “Wretched” meaning images of blood, sharp objects penetrating skin, bruises, vomit, clubbings, starvation, and the like. Topics of conversation not suitable for the dinner table. Images borne out of the presumption that this is a no-holds-barred film, unafraid to show un-sugar-coated reality. Recent films in this strand include 2008’s Hunger, 2003’s Irreversible and 2009's Antichrist. Cell 211, directed by the Spanish filmmaker Daniel Monzon, is one of the most recent additions to the wretched reality strand.
            The film announces its brutality from the get-go. A prisoner in a shadowed cell, one that looks not quite of this world, opens his veins into a sink and calmly does away with himself. The cell he is in is cell 211, which Juan Oliver (Alberto Amman), a new guard at the prison, will be involuntarily locked in after a riot knocks him unconscious during a prison tour. His subsequent initiation into the prison--full of militant Basques and regular Spaniards, all who believe him to be an inmate-- cobbles together a collection of abrasive characters, including Malamadre (Luis Tosar), a prison gang-leader who takes a liking to Juan. These developments are proceeded by the required dossier of imagery: fists hitting faces, batons hitting people, a severed ear, and finally, a shot of Juan’s pregnant, unconscious wife, having been beaten down by a guard outside the prison where she was one of the many rioting protesters. She simply wanted to see her husband, whose safety she was concerned about; now, she lies in a hospital, dying. Predictably, it is only here, at the climax of wretchedness, that the film softens up; a poor pregnant woman, beaten senseless. Now, Juan will lose it. He will turn against the guards and find himself siding with the militants. This cues more images of throat-slitting, male-on-male brawling, a hanging attempt; shame if you aren't slapped awake by this film!
(Luis Tosar and Juan Oliver in Cell 211/Canal+Espana)

            Monzon tries to care about the story and produces several haunting, claustrophobic scenes; one involving Malamadre walking down a corridor, guided by a guard’s voice towards a file on Juan; another involves Juan sitting in his cell and staring at the crazed engravings on the wall. Monzon fills his film with pretensions towards social commentary on the conflict between Spain and the Basque region, and on the Spanish prison system, but these points becomes easily overwhelmed by the parade of wretchedness. What Monzon and his contemporaries (Noe, McQueen, Winterbottom, et. al) who make us stare at hard reality don’t understand is the other hard reality they aren’t penetrating; the audience’s sense of reason. Any excessively violent Hollywood film would cause the audience to walk away with an impression of rapid-fire close-ups of gore and sadism. Cell 211 accomplishes nothing more and nothing less. The only difference between its excessiveness and the excessiveness of Rambo are the suggestions that this is reality we’re dealing with, and we take reality seriously. The mature viewer will not be fooled. When a film presents us with non-stop wretched imagery, yet asks us to feel empathetic about its substance, it simply becomes sensation. The violence in Cell 211 is merely cringe-inducing and shows us nothing about the menace and anxiety of living in prison; the only feelings that can earn the brutality.
Wretched imagery in modern art films more often than not creates a product that we don’t mind getting out of our heads as we exit the theater. Cinema is probably the most successful spectator sport of all time. While there have been brutal films that have penetrated the consciousness of the audience and transcended spectatorship, the recent crop of highly lauded films are doing no such thing. The last line is Cell 211 is: “Any questions?” No, I think we have more answers at this point.
(Monica Belucci in Irreversible/Studio Canal)
(Michael Fassbender in Hunger/Film4)