The Bar opens on a particulate level: an animated dance of cells multiplying, mutating and spreading, all to a wonderful jazz score. Intimations of viral infection in this credit sequence ensure that the next scene – a mobile single-take tracking shot that jumps dexterously from one character to another as they move through a crowded square in downtown Madrid – is not merely a way for director/co-writer Álex de la Iglesia (The Day Of The Beast, The Last Circus, Witching And Bitching) to show off his filmmaking agility, but also to track the opportunities for contagion afforded by random human encounters in our everyday bump and grind. Now that the film’s action has scaled up to the human level, it never goes back down again, but a preoccupation with filth and sputum, vomit, urine, blood and excrement ensures that the film’s initial microscopic view remains a constant cellular subtext, bubbling away just beneath the surface.
Out to meet a man on a blind date, upmarket Elena (Blanca Suárez) wanders into a working-class bar to charge her mobile phone – but not before a gypsy woman has cursed her in the street (“a pox and poison on you!”). Disease will come to dominate the film, as the disparate folk in the bar, including its no-nonsense owner Amparo (Terele Pávez) and her kindly waiter Sátur (`Secun de la Rosa), hipster adman Nacho (Mario Casas), lonely, middle-aged Trini (Carmen Machi) and homeless, deranged alcoholic Israel (Jaime Ordóñez) suddenly find themselves trapped together in the bar and under fire, with a very ill man in the toilet.
Films about sieges (not to mention films about the zombie-like ‘infected’) are a dime a dozen, but the beauty of The Bar is that the threat remains almost entirely invisible. If these characters have caught the virus, it is too early for them to show any symptoms – and so the film’s focus is instead on their own ever widening divisions (social, sexual) and their increasingly desperate conduct, as paranoia, selfishness and aggression recombine to prove as virulent, fatal even, as any illness. As the action in the third act shifts to the sewers beneath the bar, it is as though these people, stripped down and literally wading in shit, have been reduced not just to bodily functions, but also to their basest level. Disease or no disease, they are all the vectors of a rapidly transmitted bestiality born of circumstance and incubated in their shared sense of hopelessness – and as it spreads through them, morality and civilisation rot away. Yet if this sounds deadly serious, Iglesias plays everything like a shrill farce, oiling up his larger-than-life characters to fit into ever smaller spaces, and turning their changeability on a dime. The result is an over-the-top, below-the-bottom comic melodrama that in the end puts human behaviour under the microscope.