It is like the Cheers from Hell. The regulars at this downtown Madrid tavern know each other’s names, but that does not mean they like each other It is a far from ideal spot to be trapped during a catastrophe, but its not like anyone had a choice. Elena just came in to charge her phone, but she will struggle to survive with a group of strangers in Álex de la Iglesia’s The Bar (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival.
Elena was on her way to meet her internet date, but alas for him, she will stand him up. It is not her fault. Blame the sniper picking off every customer leaving that crummy bar. The mysterious agency at work also disposes of the bodies with ruthless efficiency. Whatever is going on, the Spanish government does not want citizens to know about it. An airtight media blackout is in effect and the bar is soon physically sealed from the outside.
To survive they will have to work together, but that will be harder than it sounds. Both the working-class bartender Sátur and Nacho, the hipster advertising designer would be happy to work closely with Elena, but not so much the shrewish proprietor or the anti-social pensioner who regular comes to feed the slot machines. The retired cop and the lingerie salesman are both rather standoffish, but Israel, the unstable, Bible-quoting homeless maniac will talk to anyone.
Clearly, the Spanish government has improved significantly at perpetrating cover-ups since the release of [REC] 2. It helps that nobody out there really wants to know the truth, or so de la Iglesia clearly suggests. Like My Big Night and Witching & Bitching, The Bar features a colorful cast of characters, driven by an incredible set of circumstances to act like lunatics. However, as the initial sense of mystery wears off, it becomes a rather conventional exercise in lifeboat paranoia. The unhinged Book of Revelations-obsessed ravings of the increasingly violent “Israel” also quickly become wearisome. Still, we can see why de la Iglesia is one of the top genre directors on the international festival scene from the way he generates tension from the contrivances forcing the survivors to squeeze through a narrow drainage hole into the sewers below.
Blanca Suárez truly gives a fearless performance as Elena, especially when de la Iglesia is lathering her in baking oil and forcing her through said apertures. Even apart from all that, she elevates the film with her smart, sophisticated presence. Mario Casas effectively plays against type as the shy, slightly creepy Nacho. However, Jaime Ordóñez’s abrasively eye-rolling, transparently on-the-nose Israel goes beyond the cartoonish lunacy we expect and enjoy in de la Iglesia’s films.
De la Iglesia has a knack for bedlam and spectacle, but he also has a tendency to get bogged down in didactic indulgences (As Luck Would Have It being an unfortunate example). Viewers can see full well the merits of the former inclination and the frustrating implications of the latter during the course of The Bar. It is a film that ultimately undermines itself, but it still earns mega-style points for using Duke Ellington’s “Portrait of Wellman Braud” during the opening and closing credits. Not nearly as much fun as Big Night or Witching, The Bar is best left to the auteur’s most ardent fans when it screens Friday (10/27) and Saturday (10/28) as part of this year’s PFF.