Dir: Belen Macias. Spain. 2008. 95 mins.
There are times when this anticipated El Deseo/Warner Bros-backed production clearly yearns to be a gritty women’s prison drama. And there are others when it aims to be a kooky-but-heartwarming, comedy-tinged Almodovar melodrama. But although a worthy cast do their level best, Macias’ first film betrays a surprising lack of confidence in its core story and winds up a messy misfire. Business prospects outside Spain and select Latin American territories seem limited.
A real-life triumph-through-adversity tale about how a theatre troupe was formed in a tough Spanish female penitentiary,My Prison Yard features an occasionally enaging though heavily stereotyped cast of inmate and warden characters, a few amusing and affecting scenes of jailbird bonding and/or disintegration, and a feisty turn by Veronica Echegui in a central role that is supposed to throw a high-security fence around the whole enterprise.
But less cliche-tolerant members of the audience won’t let Echegui’s full-on, Duracell performance stop them from making a break for freedom. Playing out between 1985 and 1990 (though period references are thin on the ground), the film kicks off with the botched bank heist that sends gusty, streetwise Isa (Ecehgui) back to prison. Soon she’s exchanging hugs and drugs with the alternative family that - despite her love for the young daughter she has left behind - seems to mean more to Isa than the confusing world outside. Shooting up with her best mate Rosa (Perez) is like a kid’s game, and it’s only later that Isa will face up to the realities of addiction. But there’s more to prison than shared syringes, folksy gypsy matriarchs and hot lesbian sex: there’s Mar (Pena), the warden-with-a-heart-of-gold, who overcomes some pretty feeble opposition to set up a theatre group. Isa turns out to be one of the star actresses - but she’s also a drug-user, who veers from looking great to heroin-raddled to great again with alarming regularity. Will she make the big show’
Having set the question up, the script drifts away to get beached in soap-like scenes of prison life, occasionally jerking back to add another half-developed conflict. The new governess’s scantily-motivated disapproval for the theatre scheme; the hinted tension between Isa and the brother who is raising her little daughter - these are sketched in hastily between overlong, dramatically-flat scenes of prison life.
Though its framings and fades-to-black are too often televisual, My Prison Yard has a vibrant sense of colour and a peppy energy, particularly in its first half-hour. But this is dispersed by a series of increasingly cliched situations and lashings of heavy-handed sentiment - which just in case we missed it, is driven home by a soundtrack of pop-ified gypsy laments.
Warner Bros Entertainment Espana
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Patricia Reyes Spindola