‘The Bar’: Film Review | Berlin 2017

El bar (The Bar) - Still 2- H 2017
Courtesy of Pokeepsie Films
Go-nowhere grotesquerie.

Alex de la Iglesia’s latest, featuring a motley gathering trapped in the location of the title, plays out of competition at Berlin 2017.

The best films of Alex de la Iglesia walk the tightrope between overkill and control; behind all the mayhem, the director’s reassuringly steady hand can be sensed. But for most of its excessive duration, The Bar is in fast, furious freefall, let down by a lazy script which, after the first half an hour or so, finds it as hard to escape from its self-imposed labyrinth as its characters do.

Riskily, the press book invokes John Carpenter and Luis Bunuel, and if The Bar had indeed been able to rustle up some kind of existential/suspense hybrid in the way this suggests, then we could have been watching something special. But we are not: Through its second half, The Bar is the cinematic equivalent of a drunken, garrulous teen in a late-night bar, who won’t shut up and let you go home. Playing out-of-comp at Berlin, it’s intermittently entertaining and appealingly energetic, but quickly forgettable.

The eye-catching credit sequence, featuring massively magnified bacteria, hints at depth, darkness and interest which the film never achieves. Fearsome Amparo (Terele Pavez, like most of the cast a de la Iglesia regular) runs the titular (and nameless) bar in central Madrid with her meek assistant Satur (Secun de la Rosa). Also in there for breakfast are hipster Nacho (Mario Casas); two middle-aged guys, Spanish ex-cop Andres (Joaquin Climent) and one Argentinean, Sergio (Alejandro Awada); nervy housewife type Trini (Carmen Machi); and down and out, wild-looking Israel (Jaime Ordonez). Soon they’re joined by the elegant, attractive Elena (Blanca Suarez), who it’s clear doesn’t really belong. She's a breath of perfumed air in this run-down, somewhat overhung and probably malodorous environment, which is rendered with grungy authenticity.

A man leaves the bar and is suddenly, inexplicably shot dead on the sidewalk as is the good, honest working man who rushes out to help him. Everyone else is trapped, understandably afraid to leave. A grotesquely obese man is found dead in the toilet after injecting himself with something. The TV news offers no clear signals, and rumors start to circulate inside the bar; mysteriously, the bodies outside disappear, and before long the characters are at one another's throats in an out-of-control cycle of conspiracy theories, spreading like the malevolent bacteria of the credits.

So far so good: perhaps, we optimistically think, we’re in for a sharp-eyed satire about the existential uncertainties that terrorism has brought to our 2017 lives, with the bar as a microcosm of a manipulated society fueled by its irrational fears of the terrorist within. Extravagant satire is, after all, de la Iglesia’s hallmark, as witnessed in his first and for many his best film, the cult classic The Day of the Beast, Common Wealth, or his last, the darkly joyous take on vacuous tube entertainment, My Big Night.

The group opts for the unlikely theory that they’ve been infected with a virus carried by the obese man. Some of them go down into the basement, and at roughly this point The Bar itself does the same thing, abandoning any good intentions it may have had. Suddenly it becomes a shouty, sweary, sweaty, grungy, cartoonish, infantile affair involving an endless chase through endless B-movie sewers, redeemed only by some creative camera work by Angel Amoros and some typically classy de la Iglesia tech hijinks. The fact that down in the sewers the characters shed their social masks and become their “real” selves hardly needs making: There may be a satirical point in having a deranged Christian fundamentalist pursuing his victims through smelly wet tunnels, but if there is, it’s drowned out by all the visual and verbal noise.

There are moments of wit, but they're few and far between. The comically grotesque consequences of squeezing a human body through a small hole are played out not once, but twice, at length. At one point a briefcase springs open to reveal not a terrorist bomb but women’s underwear. It doesn’t have to be subtle: but if not, then at least let it raise a smile.

There’s little characterization in The Bar, with most of the actors reprising recognizable Spanish stereotypes they’re comfortable with — Pavez as the scary matriarch, Machi as the neurotic Trini, de las Rosa as the insecure innocent. Casas is still working (and with some success) to shake off his image as a teen-friendly hunk. Suarez, wearing a pristine pink dress which later becomes graphically soiled with horror movie detritus, is terrific. But the camerawork with regard to Suarez is uncomfortably voyeuristic early on, becoming shamelessly voyeuristic later, in the best tradition of Euro schlock horror. In his defense, de la Iglesia is at least coherent, and is always keen to film bodies, of all kinds, from all angles and in all conditions, and in The Bar he does so with a sometimes eye-watering, Swiftian relish.

At one point early on, Andres and Sergio have a brief, quiet conversation. It lasts only a few seconds, but during it the two middle-aged men reveal their insecurities, and their entire, frustrated lives are opened up to us. It’s the best sequence in The Bar, and the only one like it. Seeming to come from the heart, and quite out of character for an Alex de la Iglesia film, it shows that this prodigiously gifted middle-aged director, should he choose to, could be making an entirely more rewarding kind of movie.

Production companies: Pokeepsie Films, El Bar Producciones, Nadie es Perfecto, Atresmedia Cine
Cast: Blanca Suarez, Mario Casas, Carmen Machi, Terele Pavez, Alejandro Awada, Joaquin Climent, Secun de la Rosa, Jaime Ordonez
Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Screenwriters: Jorge Guerricaechevarria
Producers: Carolina Bang, Kiko Martinez, Mikel Lejarza, Mercedes Gamero, Alex de la Iglesia
Director of photography: Angel Amoros
Production designers: Jose Luis Arrizabalaga, Arturo García
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Domingo Gonzalez
Composer: Joan Valent, Carlos Riera
Casting director: Pilar Moya
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment

No rating, 102 minutes