Review: ‘El bar’ (Álex de la Iglesia, 2017)

Ordinary citizens in the wrong place, in these extraordinary times.

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Horrified customers looking out through the windows of a bar in ‘El bar’.

In El bar (Álex de la Iglesia, 2017), an ensemble of citizens find themselves trapped in a bar in downtown Madrid, when a customer is gunned down a moment after exiting the establishment. A claustrophobic crisis ensues, and the characters are predictably overcome with paranoia.

This is a film inspired by current world headlines, particularly those circulating in Europe. The trapped group argue hysterically about what is happening, and the first suspicion, naturally, is that the shooting was an act of terrorism. A litany of 21st-century European anxieties pour out next from the individuals: xenophobia, prejudice against migrants, fear of epidemics, even worries of a conspiring, authoritarian government. To the film’s credit, this first act of theorizing and bickering includes a few eerie moments, and at one point the mystery is such that it felt anything could happen in the film: that it could pivot to horror, or even surrealism.

Nevertheless, and perhaps as respite from the gravity of its themes, El bar fills itself with humor. Comedy indeed comes from desperation. After the cast of characters has been persuaded that there is no terrorist among them, one becomes convinced that they are all, in fact, merely dreaming. It is not the case though, and the party continues.

A film with a premise like that of El bar demands diversity in its characters for optimal effect, and indeed, the ensemble is a miniature, exaggerated cross-section of what can be imagined as contemporary Spanish society. The characters almost fit the stereotypes of a slasher or survival horror film, and they can be described with brief titles, like classes in a role-playing game: the Muse, the Fool, the Merchant, the Soldier, and so on. These individuals, thrown into the small space of a bar under siege, let all their hidden hatreds and prejudices come out. Half of the film’s humor comes from these politically-incorrect, how-dare-you kind of insults, against the poor, the crazy, the old, the foreign, the ugly.

The trade-off that El bar makes is a sacrifice of character depth. These stock figures have a quantity of traits without much quality, or depth, and these serve the comic aspect well, but not the film’s final act—when it becomes a survival thriller, when the film needs its audience to care the most.

The remaining characters discover a way out of the bar through the sewers. But to escape, they have to fit themselves through an exacting hole in the basement stockroom, and to squeeze in they strip to their undergarments and douse themselves with cooking oil. Down in the sewers, half-naked and wading through literal filth, the characters become their most desperate, reach their breaking point, reveal their truest nature.

Without revealing too much: the film ends with a grimy but strangely glamorous image, one that parallels the opening scene, but marking the trauma and shock of the intervening events.

El bar is nearly two hours long, and while the first half is intriguing, it becomes a little tiring towards the end. One would also not be hard-pressed to find precedents, films with a similar premise of characters trapped in a small space, the crisis bringing out the worst from them. Nevertheless, El bar delivers solid entertainment, in a story set in the heart of one of Europe’s great cities, finding humor out of the continent’s concerns in these anxious times.

Film still from IMDb.com.

2 thoughts on “Review: ‘El bar’ (Álex de la Iglesia, 2017)”

  1. Oi, I watched this movie because of your review. No me gusta, baks. Didn’t even find it funny, but I could blame that on crappy subtitles. The social commentary was so subdued I think even Coca-Cola made a stronger impact.

    You mentioned precedents, and I agree — many elements, from the premise to the theme to the crazy Jesus character, have been explored way better in other films. I think the alien-gangster comedy “Attack the Block” had a more interesting take on the “enclosed space crisis” idea (I’m sure there’s a better term for this haha). Thailand’s “Countdown” also had a nutso Jesus-y character that reminded me of Israel, and both were significant in their respective movies in almost the same way.

    Anyhoo, may tangential na tanong ako at pwede mong i-delete ang comment na ito kung hindi ito katanggap-tanggap: may e-copy ka ng A Portrait… ni Nick Joaquin? 😀

    1. I guess I found it funny because there was a full theater laughing with me when I saw it last Friday. 🙂 About the social commentary, that’s probably true. I think it’s a film more interested in using the zeitgeist for entertainment, rather than in illuminating it.

      I haven’t seen those films. In any case, I did get the impression that ‘El bar’ is more of a mainstream, blockbuster-type movie than a ‘serious’ film.

      Hahaha. Wala, e. Nabasa ko lang ‘yun as part of this new Penguin Classics anthology.

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