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Originally published Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

'Cell 211': Guard becomes locked in a web of lies in powerful prison drama

"Cell 211," Daniel Monzón's powerful Spanish prison drama, won SIFF's Golden Space Needle Award for best actor (Luis Tosar, who plays a ruthless gang leader). The plot revolves around a new prison guard (Alberto Ammann) forced to pretend to be a prisoner.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Cell 211,' with Luis Tosar, Alberto Ammann. Directed by Daniel Monzón, from a screenplay by Monzón and Jorge Guerricaechevarría. 113 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains profanity, graphic violence). In Spanish, with English subtitles. Varsity.

How do you protect a necessary lie? How can you maintain a sense of honor while you're participating in an elaborate deception?

Those questions reverberate during much of Daniel Monzón's powerful Spanish prison drama, "Cell 211," which begins with a graphic suicide, takes us to cellblock hell and back, then cheekily bows out by directly asking the audience: "Any more questions?"

The plot revolves around a new prison guard, Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann), who gets an inconveniently timed tour of his workplace just as a riot is breaking out. Knocked down and out, he wakes up to find himself forced to pretend to be on the side of the rioters.

If he reveals that he's not a condemned criminal, he won't last long. But as long as he can maintain the illusion that he's one of them, he'll live. After he wins the approval of Malamadre (Luis Tosar), the toughest crook in the place, he faces a series of ethical compromises.

Tosar won the Golden Space Needle Award for best actor at this year's Seattle International Film Festival. It's the kind of gutsy, physical performance that wins Academy Awards for Daniel Day-Lewis, but Ammann is just as impressive as a man who must suddenly test his limits and values.

Together, they create an intense friendship that would otherwise seem unlikely. While Malamadre is a ruthless gang leader, proud of his ability to dominate prison life, Juan Oliver plays on his paternal instincts and wins nearly everyone over with tall tales about a criminal past.

Stories about gifted liars usually end with them getting caught in their own tangled webs, but "Cell 211" avoids being judgmental about it. Indeed, what you're most likely to remember from this film is the intense satisfaction that these doomed characters derive from creating relationships out of thin hot air.

John Hartl:

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