Modelo 77 (Prison 77) Review – A Prison Film That will Make You Want to Shout Libertad! Amnistía!

Here is a prison movie that encompasses the main conceits of all prison stories – the education of a felon (Animal Factory), the twisted prison (Midnight Express), and the triumphant escape (The Shawshank Redemption). It’s also part docudrama, telling of Spain’s 1977 prison uprisings that had prisoners flinging rocks from roofs, being bombarded by rubber bullets and smoke grenades, and calling for improved conditions and general amnesty. 

Five hundred prisoners, about half the prison’s inmates, continued to occupy the roof they had stormed on Monday demanding improved prison conditions and the extension of the amnesty program to all common criminals.The New York Times, 1977

Modelo 77 begins with Manuel (Miguel Herrán) in a holding cell, an accountant that’s embezzled a couple thousand dollars, but has become the fall guy for a much larger sum. He’s looking at eight years. His prison stay begins with rough sleeping in a bare cell, no showers, and when he stands up for his rights – beatings by the guards. Manuel meets and befriends Ramon (Xavi Mira), Pino (Javier Gutiérrez), and Boni (Xavi Sáez) – An outgoing family man, a professional prisoner, and a doctor. Together they work to survive, and to change the prison’s conditions. It’s a long fought battle, and the prison’s personnel rule through fear, violence and shady tactics. While the prisoners’ attempts fail or meet blowback, casualties, betrayal and hardship build to a breaking point.

Manuel’s three friends each take a different angle to their incarcerations. Ramon lives in the present, avoids considering the future, and keeps upbeat. Boni works to change the system. And Pino has given up hope for the future, does little in the present, and instead escapes to books and isolation. It’s Manuel that shakes everything up, and watching them climb the steep slope of bureaucracy, fascism, and cruelty towards freedom is thrilling – you’ll want to shout “Libertad! Amnistía!” alongside them. 

But if it’s a steep slope, it’s one often tripped and slipped on, and their trials can be gruesome – one protest is held by having the prisoners cut their arms in solidarity, threatening to bleed out if the press isn’t brought to them. And too often their reward is a heavy beating from the prison guards, or ulcers from the disinfectant on the cell floors. Thankfully, Modelo 77 keeps a lively balance between this and jokes, camaraderie, and Manuel’s girlfriend – who tethers and supports him from the otherside of the visiting room window. 

“Certain women do gravitate toward incarcerated men. It’s a recognized condition. Something about the captivity of others enhances the experience of their own freedom. I assure you, it’s erotic.” – The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson

On the other side of the camera, Miguel Herrán performs well and admirably as Manuel, but the star is Javier Gutiérrez as Pino, who’s confident demeanor, gold chains, long pointed collars, and thick-framed aviators transport you to 70s Spain. The sets and production design are similarly well worn, and the budget allows for some spectacular scenes and scale that is rarely afforded to prison films – Wide shots over the city, cars, buses, waves of prisoners and prison guards (who are unaffectionally called blisters). And while it’s true that most prison films are best seen at night, to match the dim atmosphere, Modelo 77 is a surprisingly buoyant and exciting flick worth seeing in high detail on the big screen.

Director: Alberto Rodríguez

Cast: Miguel Herrán, Javier Gutiérrez , Xavi Sáez

Writers: Rafael Cobos, Alberto Rodríguez

Branden Zavaleta

Branden Zavaleta is a Perth-based film critic. He loves movies that charm, surprise or share secrets. Some little known favourites of his are Ishii's The Taste of Tea, Barboni's They Call Me Trinity, and Kieslowski's Camera Buff.

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