cinema · GFF23

Film review: Prison 77

 After the death of tyrannical dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain began its transition to democracy as the constitutional monarchy was established. Writer and director Alberto Rodriguez looks at this turbulent period through his Barcelona-based thriller Prison 77 (Modelo 77). Penned with his regular collaborator Rafael Cobos, the story follows young accountant Manuel (Miguel Herrán) who faces years in jail for embezzlement. As he adjusts to the brutality of life behind bars, he befriends wise veteran inmate José Pino (Javier Gutiérrez), who reluctantly takes him under his wing. As the conditions worsen during the prisoners’ fight for amnesty, a union is formed which leads to riotous rebellion.

 Stunningly shot with a gritty 70s grain, Rodriguez and Cobos’ narrative has all the recognisable trademarks of the prison genre but executes its tropes with authentic conviction. The location is, by its nature, restrictive, yet it also feels vastly daunting as Manuel is thrown into perilous territory. As he walks the wide halls, introduced to his harsh new reality, we’re introduced to an array of interesting supporting characters; from the resourceful El Negro to the slippery Boni, they fit the usual archetypes within the institutionalised society but are written into our protagonist’s plight with such richness and emotional depth. The slowly developing master and apprentice dynamic between Manuel and Pino gives shades of Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption, and their bond provides moments of sheer brilliance as they’re put through the wringer of endurance.

 Known for his role in Netflix’s hit series Money Heist, leading actor Miguel Herrán is no stranger to portraying characters coping with weighty stakes. In this particular arc, we see his naivety and vulnerability transform into unwavering determination as he is altered by his bleak circumstances. The performance is remarkable; his expressive brown eyes taking us with him through every savage low and the occasional glimpse of a high. His dreams for the future are represented by his only regular visitor Lucía, played by Catalina Sopelana, and this sweet subplot is a necessary hope device in a film that deals mainly in despair.

 Fuelled by unjust politics and an aching ambition for freedom, Rodriguez presents Prison 77 as a picture that is both perceptive in its historical storytelling, and powerfully intimate in its study of how Manuel is strengthened and reshaped by his sentence. Prisons have always served as an unforgiving yet compelling landscape for cinema, and with this European masterclass in threat and tension, there’s a new top dog on the cell block.


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