Netflix categorizes 2017’s El Bar (The Bar, although The Cafe would be a more accurate title) as an “International Comedy.” From Spain, the first word in that descriptor is accurate, but boy is the second part debatable. Not that this means the movie is bad, nor is it without its comedic moments, but I’m hesitant to say that a film that uses the set-up of a public shooting, and directly references the Paris shooting in dialogue when characters are trying to figure out what’s happening, could ever really be considered a “comedy.”
10 people from various walks of life find themselves in a Madrid cafe on a normal day. Amparo (the late Terele Pávez) owns the cafe, where she has employed Sátur (Secun de la Rosa) for over 10 years. Elena (Blanca Suárez, from La piel que habito) ducks in to see if she can charge her phone before meeting for a first date with a man she met on an app. Trini (Carmen Machi) is a neighborhood woman who comes in daily to try her luck at the cafe’s slot machine. Andrés (Joaquín Climent) was a police officer who let his drinking problem get the better of him, while Sergio (Alejandro Awada) is a salesman of fancy women’s underwear; both are regular customers of Amparo’s. Nacho (Mario Casas) is a designer who works on ad campaigns and, like Elena, has never been to the cafe before. And Israel (Jaime Ordóñez) is a local vagrant that Amparo provides with booze and, occasionally, a place to warm himself.
This vignette is rudely interrupted when a large man, seemingly drugged out but possibly very ill, enters the establishment and goes straight to the bathroom. When a local maintenance man leaves through the front door, he is shot dead; terrified citizens run screaming in every direction, evacuating the square. When another patron steps out to check on the dead man, he too is shot, and the remaining eight patrons (and one ill man) realize that they are trapped inside.
It’s a solid premise, a kind of modern day Spanish mashup of the Twilight Zone episodes “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (which features several people from different social circles trapped in a remote diner) and “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” (which demonstrates just how quickly the trappings of civility and community can degenerate into rampant, violent paranoia with the introduction of the smallest sliver of doubt). This is a thriller, there’s no doubt about it, and a pretty decent one at that. Perhaps the folks over at Netflix who slot films into genre groupings were confused by the fact that there are a few moments of slapstick (like when the captives attempt to force a greased-up Israel through a very small drain hole in the floor as part of an escape plan) and some other broad physical comedy (Nacho grabs Elena’s ass when helping her down from a chair—oh-ho-ho!). On the sliding scale of films that fall into the category of “people trapped in an everyday location by unknowable forces,” this one falls closer to The Mist‘s end than Shaun of the Dead‘s.
First, there are the questions about who is at fault, and the accusations that those who are trapped inside are somehow in collusion with the shooter. Why does this person have a gun? What’s the unusual piece of hardware in that person’s bag? Why is he, who was so gung-ho about searching her bag, now unwilling to let his own briefcase be inspected? Why did you stop into this cafe if you’ve never been here before and you’re not from this part of town? Next come the bigger concerns: is it a terrorist? You have a big bushy beard–are you a terrorist? (This one in particular has some particularly non-comedic underpinnings, given that one character says that even some Spaniards are them now–that is, Muslims.) This question is aimed at Mario Casas’s character, which amuses me; he’s dressed in a tightly tailored hipster outfit that does nothing to disguise his supermodel body, even though he does have one of those really gross beards that your buddy thinks makes him look super manly but just makes you wonder how much decomposing food is actually trapped in that rat’s nest. Even once every living character has been reduced to wearing their undergarments, they still keep him in his clothes because you can’t have a character who looks like this wandering around and still keep his allegiance in question for dramatic purposes, since the audience is going to side with him regardless. Thirdly, we move on to the particulars of the situation as a result of the realization that the man in the bathroom is dead, and was perhaps infected with some kind of virus. Did you touch him? Did you? Who didn’t touch him. Well, she touched the body, and you touched her, so that means you’re infected too! Is there an antidote? Is the government involved? You, infected, you go over there, and we’ll stay over here. And, finally: there’s one more survivor than there is a cure. What do we do now?
It’s a pretty standard plot structure. You’ve probably seen this movie before in a different form, either in one of the aforementioned movies or an episode of an anthology television show. What sets it apart from other Western media is the character’s immediate acceptance of the concept that the government is involved in some kind of cover-up (whether that ends up being true or not; I’m not here to spoil this for you); no one ever even argues that the government “wouldn’t do that to its citizens” the way that there always is in U.S.-produced films, where there is always nominal resistance to the idea of governmental corruption. There’s also insight into different modern Spanish social classes that provides a different kind of hook. The only real failure of the film is that, plot-wise, it doesn’t offer much in the way of something novel. The reason that this group has been trapped is a complete MacGuffin; they could be dealing with a zombie apocalypse, or a government coup, or a quarantine protocol, and the end result would be the same. Again, this isn’t a detriment per se, but it’s also not a ringing endorsement. All in all, this was one of three movies that I watched while lying around because it was just too damn cold to go outside, and it was far and away the best of the three. If it’s cold where you are, and you want to watch a movie that’s of a genre that’s usually dark and gray but filtered through a colorful, sunny lens, this movie will make you a little bit warmer.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond