Homo homini lupus – man is a wolf unto man. In times of terror and constant fear in this incresingly postmodern world, basic instincts are the key to survival. At least, that’s one of the lessons we learn from El bar (part of the Berlinale competition selection), the new thriller by Álex de la Iglesia. But let’s start from the beginning: El bar commences pretty harmlessly, on an ordinary day. Different people who don’t know each other enter a bar in Madrid. A beautiful girl (Blanca Suárez) on her way to a date just wants to quickly charge her phone and a man with a bad cough who just wants to use the toilet join a disillusioned cop, an older woman with a gambling problem, a business man and a homeless guy who is obsessed with biblical quotes and the rapture and goes by the name of ‘Israel’ (an outstanding portrait of disappointment and disillusionment by Jaime Ordóñez).
Just like any ordinary day there are social comments, coffees are ordered, everything ticks over as usual – until one guy leaves the bar and gets shot. This is quickly followed by another patron of the bar getting shot as he checks on the victim, acting as a strong reminder for how suddenly fear and terror can penetrate our everyday lives. From this point on, it’s pretty obvious that leaving the bar is an impossibility and so here we remain, trapped within the insane mind of Álex de la Iglesia.
Thus begins a wild rollercoaster ride of emotions where only the fittest will survive. This harsh Darwinistic principle propels the narrative forward. The audience are asked questions such as: which behaviours are the most essential to ensure survival? Is one still able to be kind to others when ones life is gravely threatened? Is it possible to capitalise on a moment of crisis? With his ensemble cast, Iglesia gets deep down to the ugly nitty gritty of what it means to be human. Even though the film has its fair share of absurd moments, Iglesia manages to create a perpetual underlying sensation of terror, which results in a yearning to inhale deeply as though coming up for air after a long dive.
Shot in the style of a classic ’80s B-Movie horror film, Iglesias doesn’t attempt to sell his story as an exercise in realism, instead he allows his characters to go completely overboard from their first seconds held captive within the bar. Everything is a bit too loud, offensive and fast, making it impossible not to be sucked into a story so impressively eccentric that it creates its own bizarre gravitational forcefield.
The colours used to paint the scenes are pungent and powerful, and in some moments, lean themselves to an almost comic style, adding yet another layer of absurdity to the visual frame. Iglesias, who labeled his film “a comedy of terror” at the Berlinale press conference, plays with the idea that as a society, we’re all trapped with no escape. El bar is a pleasant film to watch and provides us with a stunning critique on the hegemonic ‘politics of terror’ we’ve all come to accept as ordinary. Just as Iglesias’ characters, we too are all trapped in this bar, unable to find a way to free ourselves from our driving need to survive, because there is still so much to live for.