A thriller about the patrons of a bar trying to survive an attack plays like an attack — of bad filmmaking — on the audience.
“The Bar,” a Spanish thriller about a bunch of people stuck inside a bar and its basement, trying to survive a mysterious attack, is easily the worst movie I’ve seen at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The irony is, it’s a movie that’s out to do nothing more than entertain you. But I’ve sat through paint-drying art films here (like “Spoor”) that weren’t nearly as grueling. The director, Álex de la Iglesia, is a former comic-book artist and protégé of Pedro Almodóvar who specializes in dark comedies, and he stages every scene — every moment — of “The Bar” for maximum “intensity,” which means that the characters don’t talk, they shout, and the film is paced like an action sequence that never ends (even though it all takes place in two rooms and a sewer), and almost nothing that happens makes any sense. This aggressively garish aesthetic of more-more-more may be some people’s cup of overkill, but it’s really just ineptitude moving too fast for you to notice it.
It’s mid-morning in downtown Madrid, inside a crowded watering hole (a few of the patrons are drinking, but most are just having breakfast), and the fun kicks off when someone walks onto the crowded street outside and is killed by a mysterious bullet. Is it a sniper? A terrorist? A bizarre accident? Another patron rushes to his aid and is killed as well, and for 20 minutes or so the film pretends that the answer might matter. But this is merely a way of getting the violent mayhem rolling. There’s some hysteria over whether touching one of the dead bodies will “infect” everybody, and though that, too, doesn’t come to much, it’s the tip-off that de la Iglesia is, in essence, making a zombie movie. Only the zombies are his live characters! They don’t have to turn frothing and rabid and dead. They stalk one another — and the audience — with their tedious gnashing distemper.
The square outside the bar is soon abandoned (but where are the cops? — forgive me, I need to subject this movie to one reality-based question per paragraph), and that means that the patrons must now figure out how to survive. A handful head down to the basement, and that leads to what is basically act two, which might be called “Same Tiresome Folks, More Claustrophobic Setting.” The most colorful of the crew is a homeless man named Israel (Jaime Ordóñez), who looks like a psychotic Jesus and is basically on hand to terrorize everyone. Until, that is, he choses to try and squeeze through a slightly too-small hole in the basement floor. He coats himself in some kind of oil, but nope, he gets stuck, and for what seems like about 10 minutes the movie is all about him screaming and wriggling to wedge his body out of that hole.
“The Bar” was obviously conceived as a knowing “B” movie, but in the old days, the essence of that sort of picture was that even if the screenwriting was flat, a few of the actors might come through. The script of “The Bar,” by Jorge Guerricaechevarría, barely makes it to two dimensions, but the real problem is that de la Iglesia’s direction is so frantic and showy that he allows his actors no space. They’re pawns in his clattering “visual” design. Ultimately, the characters make it out of the basement, only to land in the sewer. You know how the sewer water in movies always looks oddly clean? The one unfortunate concession to reality here is that the sewer water looks like your worst nightmare of sewer water. It’s got… stuff in it. “The Bar” turns into a movie about a bunch of shouting ciphers dunked in goop.
In what we once would have called the last reel, the lead character, Elena (Blanca Suárez), strips down to her underwear, as if to fulfill the commercial imperative insisted upon by some schlock producer from the ’80s. Will she make it out of the sewer, in her bra and panties and stockings, along with Nacho (Mario Casas), her companion? Or will Israel, the grimy demon Christ with the awful teeth, drag one or both of them down into the muck? “The Bar” drags the audience down. It’s an assault of bad judgment.