Prison 77 (Modelo 77) {Spanish Film Festival} – Review

In Spain 1976, mere months after the death of dictator General Francisco Franco, young accountant Manuel (Miguel Herrán) is imprisoned awaiting trial. While the trumped-up charges don’t reflect his actual crime, under the strict laws still in effect, this doesn’t matter. He is looking at 6 to 8 years, but it will be years yet before he is even sentenced, if he can survive that long.

Immediately Manuel is shocked by the horrid treatment of prisoners, young and old, regardless of crime face. Daring to ask for basic human decency will only get you beaten harder by ‘The Blisters’ (guards). Manuel is befriended by prisoners like Blackie (Jesús Carroza) and Boni (Xavi Sáez) who show him the ropes and that he is not alone in his fight and soon a union of sorts begins to form, not just in Manuel’s prison but across all of Spain. Over the next year, this association of prisoners seeking amnesty builds in strength to the point that even veteran con José Pino (Javier Gutiérrez) starts to believe that prison reform may be possible.

Beatings, bribery, relocation and even murder, the blisters will stop at nothing to quell the uprising. But what more can you take from men who have nothing to live for but their freedom?

Prison 77 (Modelo 77) is written and directed by Alberto Rodriguez with his regular co-writer Rafael Cobos. Selected for special presentation at this year’s Spanish Film Festival, Prison 77 is inspired by true events. The prisoner’s rights organisation (COPEL) sought basic quality of life improvements from decent food and suppression of disciplinary punishments, all the way up to amnesty or pardons for political prisoners/lesser crimes. The group’s protests ranged from sit-ins, hunger strikes, to full on prison riots to raise outside awareness of their struggle.

Filmed on location at the legendary Modelo prison in Barcelona, the setting of Prison 77 is stifling. There’s an authentic feeling of claustrophobia whenever the characters are filmed within the tight cell blocks. Even outside in the yard during exercise, we’re constantly reminded just how trapped these characters are.

Manuel’s view of the outside world being whatever scant view he can see from his window and interestingly also from clippings that his girlfriend Lucia (Catalina Sopelana) brings to him, showing Spain’s technological marvels he is completely cut off from. The prison location itself built in the late 1800s feels like a time machine trapping the inmates in the past.

I really appreciate the establishment of the different cliques and society within the prison itself. While this is a film about the fight for human rights, we see some harsh reminders that a lot of these people are locked up for a reason.

We also see how this environment effects Manuel, the other prisoners, and how they grow a harder shell to deal with it. Leading from this, it is fascinating watching the character of Pino in his transformation. Initially a man resigned to his fate, he sees his cell door not locking himself in but locking the rest of the world out. But through his relationship with Manuel, he grows to see the world another way and yearns for freedom.

Prison 77 does feel like a film which loses its way, however. Being based on the true history of COPEL, there are certain depressingly underwhelming realities the writers are forced to face. I think their way of telling a story around this and still wanting to have a thrilling finale is admirable. Although this results in Prison 77 turning into a completely different type of prison movie in its final act. Completely dropping the human rights aspect altogether.

Bolstered by incredible performances, that of Gutiérrez’ chief among them, Prison 77 (Modelo 77) makes for a captivating film. A tale of friendship, solidarity, and the strength of the human spirit in the face of injustice. It paints a vivid picture of a dark time in Spanish history for a part of society often forgotten about.

Prison 77 (Modelo 77) will be in cinemas as part of the HSBC Spanish Film Festival which will begin from June 14th until July 5th.
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