Starring ‘Money Heist’s’ Miguel Herrán, ‘Prison 77,’ A Future Model for Spanish Cinema

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The San Sebastian Festival opens on Sept. 16 with a bang: Alberto Rodriguez’s “Prison 77,” most probably the biggest Spanish film of 2022, the latest title from one of the Spain’s most preeminent auteurs and a foretaste of one possible future face of Spanish cinema, thanks to Movistar+.

“Prison 77” begins as a fish-out-of-water jail survival thriller. Manuel, in 1977, a young accountant, played by Miguel Herrán (“Money Heist,” “Elite”), is sent to Barcelona’s legendary Modelo penitentiary pending trial for embezzlement.

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It grows, however, for all of its length, as a character-driven tale of psychological observance, as Miguel gradually befriends Pino, his seen-it-all cell mate, who just wants a quiet life.

Charting “the evolving relationship between two completely different people, a young accountant with his whole life before him, and Pino, who’s lived nearly his whole life behind bars,” “Prison 77” is a story of friendship and solidarity, says José Antonio Félez at Atípica Films which produced the film with Movistar Plus+.

“Penitentiaries normally destroy individuals. In ‘Prison 77,’ through their mutual support, “Miguel and Pino discover who they are and want to be,” says Rodríguez.

But it’s also social-issue, plumbing the process of history.

In 2017-19’s “The Plague,” set in 1580s Seville and still Movistar Plus’ biggest series to date, Rodríguez paints a fascinating picture of how Spain could have turned a corner, becoming a protestant county in line with much of Northern Europe, Félez observes. The opportunity went begging.

Like “Marshland,” which swept 10 Spanish Academy Goyas and its 2017 follow-up “Smoke and Mirrors,” “Prison 77” returns to this central Rodríguez theme: The push-back and limitations to social progress which have bedevilled Spanish history.

Rodríguez and his longterm scribe Rafael Cobos began to think of a film many years ago when they read about 1970s’ pro-amnesty prisoners union Copel and the biggest jail breakout in Spanish history, when 45 inmates escaped from Barcelona’s Modelo prison, crawling out through its sewers.

The movie takes place as Spain passes an Amnesty Law in October 1977, which granted the country’s outgoing regime immunity from past crimes against humanity in return for abandoning formal political power. That Amnesty was not extended to common law prisoners, however. Manuel soon joins a gaol-based pro general Amnesty org.

“Prison 77” “isn’t just a prison film, it talks of a bigger picture,” says Rodríguez.

Sold by Film Factory Entertainment, “Prison 77” marks Movistar Plus’ third feature production after Alejandro Amenábar’s 2019 “While at War” and Daniel Guzmán’s 2022 humble hood caper “Canallas.”

Producing movies, Movistar+ can retain talent. Alejandro Amenábar segued from a Movistar Plus+ movie, “While At War,” to a series, “La Fortuna.” Rodríguez has now gone the other way. More directors look likely to work this two-way street. Most Movistar directors remain filmmakers; Movistar wants to keep its talent.

“Above all else, Alberto sees himself as a film director. He needs to go on making films. Movistar Plus has understood that very well and that the way to tie down actors and directors is for them, hand in hand with the platform, to continue their careers as filmmakers,” says Félez.

Movies also allow Movistar+ to out-scale near all competition.

“Prison 77” is “a big film in all senses, not just the material, but screenplay, complexity and quality,” says Félez.

Rodríguez waited two decades to shoot “Prison 77” in the Modelo prison itself. He needed a huge prison which would give the impression of being its own city, he explains.

Spain’s box office imploded with the pandemia. Currently, especially for arthouse and local movies. it has yet to return, tracking at €162m ($162 million), 60% of 2019’s €268.4m ($268.4 million), for the first semester of 2022.

“As things stand, most of the films that get made in Spain are comedies, thrillers or marvellous arthouse films such as ‘Alcarràs’ and ‘Lullaby,’ made for a maximum €3 million  [$3 million],” says Domingo Corral, Movistar Plus+ director of original programming.

“But it is very difficult for producers to finance premium films with a higher budget, scale and ambition. Platforms such as Movistar+ can play an important role in making these higher-budget films such as ’Prison 77’ possible and viable,” Corral argues.

“Films can have an enormous value for our clients,” Corral adds, pointing to “While at War” which grossed $12.2 million in Spain, and was the highest-grossing film of any nationality on Movistar Plus+ in 2020.

Buena Vista International releases “Prison 77” in Spain on Sept. 23.

If “Prison 77” also catches fire at the box office and on the service, expect more Movistar Plus+ premium multi-layered movies of large ambition  – artistic budgetary and of audiences – to follow.

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