Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s directorial debut, released on Netflix last month, depicts a chilling future: a tower style prison where the occupants are forced to eat the food left by those on floors above them.
The director of this Spanish thriller-horror said the main aim the film was to promote the social necessity of a fair distribution of wealth. Selfishness, greed and injustice are certainly evident throughout. Humanity is reduced to it basest in El Hoyo, or The Hole (the film’s original Spanish title), which opens with a multitude of chefs cooking a Versailles-esque banquet being serenaded by an on-screen violinist. The banquet is then sent down the levels of the prison on a platform, stopping at each for two minutes for the inmates to eat as much as they can; leaving those at the top are satisfied while those at the bottom starve – a stark realisation of a Marxist pyramid.
We soon learn that this inequality is randomly allocated. At the end of every month the inmates are drugged, and each pair of cellmates reallocated to a different level. Protagonist Goreng (Ivan Masssague) and his cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), whose names mean ‘fried’ and ‘thank you’ in Malay respectively, are first transferred from a comfortable level 48 to the less comfortable 171, where the platform reaches them bereft of the tiniest morsel. They are then faced with the only prospect of survival: one killing and subsequently eating the other.
The violence and brutality of humans literally ripping each other apart renders the film not one to watch whilst eating your tea. However, Gaztelu-Urrutia has defended the violence and horror, claiming that as humans we do rip each other apart. Goreng and fellow inmate Baharat (Emilio Buale Coka) set out on a brutal mission to try and reform the animalistic system of survival of the Hole by riding the platform to the bottom, rationing out the food so there is enough for everyone on each level, emblematic of the importance of an individual driving necessary change, in critique of both capitalist and socialist systems.
Their journey down reflects the journey of Dante’s Inferno through the layers of hell, as each floor of the prison becomes increasingly brutal and harrowing. “I’ll smother him with a pillow…slit open his belly and eat what you’ve given him”, an inmate with Down’s Syndrome says of her old sick cellmate. It can be a difficult watch at times, showing a merciless reality of what humans can become when ruled by abject hunger.
The film was greeted with a largely positive reception. It won the People’s Choice Award for Midnight Madness at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, where the nominees are made up of the festival’s underground and cult films. It subsequently secured a worldwide streaming deal with Netflix, catapulting it to mainstream prominence. The film is available in dubbed English, French and Portuguese as well as its original Spanish.
I personally found the English dubbing extremely frustrating, with the voices mostly out of sync with the actors’ mouths. It didn’t help that the subtitles are at times different from the English audio, the former being a more literal translation and the latter a less strict interpretation of the script. I would recommend watching with subtitles and enjoying the smugness of having watched a foreign language film.
The actors’ performances are exemplary. Like the food on the platform, the characters they play seem to also gradually diminish. Goreng becomes increasingly emaciated as he is told that a young man like him could survive on water alone for a month. The film was shot chronologically with the main actor Ivan Massague losing 12 kilos over 6 weeks of filming. There isn’t much by way of relief from the relentless nature of life in the prison. Massague and Antonia San Juan, who plays fellow inmate Imogiri, named after a royal graveyard in Indonesia, are both known in Spain as comedic actors. Both were cast against type but this doesn’t provide any respite for a non-Spanish audience, especially as the closest the film seems to get to any sort of comic moment is the bizarre embodiment of social hierarchy when inmates on the level above literally shit on Baharat from a great height.
The film has been criticized for its rather abrupt ending. When the inmates reach the final level, the film ends almost straight away, leaving the question of whether enough has been done to change the system within the prison still unresolved. There is certainly scope for a sequel, but whether has been done in order to secure it remains to be seen.
A good film and a pleasant reminder that life could be a lot worse than the current state the world finds itself in at the moment.