Reviews — April 19
It would be easy to assume that a film with the nondescript title “Cell 211” is just another cheap prison movie, one of what must be hundreds of bad or mediocre ones. But put this Spanish flick on your must-see list if action movies are your thing, because this 2009 sleeper hit packs a wallop.
The setup: A newly hired guard tours the prison the day before he starts work, and in a freak accident is briefly knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, the prisoners have taken over. No one knows who he is, and neither he nor prison officials can reveal his identity, or he’ll surely be killed.
So: “Die Hard” in a prison, you might say. It works, largely on the strength of the fascinating and dangerous relationship between the guard (Alberto Ammann) and the lead mutineer (Luis Tosar, in a towering performance). Expect lots of twists and action, and also drop any expectations you might have of who you’ll root for or how it will end, because you’ll probably be wrong.
“Cell 211” (2009) Directed by Daniel Monzon. Starring Luis Tosar (a terrific actor who played the morally conflicted movie director in the recently recommended “Even the Rain”), Alberto Ammann, Carlos Bardem and Marta Etura. 113 minutes. Rated R for strong violence, language. Spanish, with English subtitles.
The setting of “City of Women” is Berlin midway through World War II, when almost all the able-bodied males, from too young to shave to near retirement age, have been shipped off to war. Germany’s capital is populated by politicians, SS toughs, amputees and their wives, widows, mothers and daughters.
Radio broadcasts still boast of military conquests and propaganda shrieks of Nazi strength, but the people huddling in bomb shelters are beginning to awaken to the truth: this is a futile war. Yet to give voice to that realization is forbidden; speaking out against Hitler will get you interrogated, probably jailed or sent to a work camp, and possibly killed.
Sigrid Schroder, the book’s central character, is numbed by the circumstances. Her husband is fighting on the Russian front; she’s forced to live with her mother-in-law, a bitter harpy; she must slog through the bombed damaged streets to reach her dead-end job.
Amid the hardship and fear and mandatory secrecy of wartime Berlin, Sigrid has a secret of her own: a forbidden affair. Although it’s over, the memory sustains her and helps her maintain her fragile humanity. And having taken a chance once, with a strange man in a darkened theater, she may find it easier to take chances again — hugely risky, but at least a reminder that she’s still alive.
Author David Gillham is at his best when he’s describing the setting and the soul-crushing atmosphere of a city wracked by war. As Sigrid squeezes onto one of the remaining buses, “More Berliners pack the aisles ... An odor of human dank deepens. A familiar bouquet by now. It’s the smell of all that is unwashed, stale, and solidified. It is the smell that has replaced the brisk scent of the city’s famous air. The ersatz perfume of Berlin, distilled from all that is chemically treated and synthetically processed. Of cigarettes manufactured from crushed acorns, of fifty-gram cakes of grit-filled soap that cleans nothing. Of rust and clotted plumbing. Damp wool, sour milk, and decay. The odor of the home front.”
It’s good detail and good writing; the sentence fragments, which Gillham frequently uses, really work here. It’s a novel well worth reading.
“City of Women,” by David R. Gillham, 2012, Berkeley Publishing Group/Penguin Books.