Álex de la Iglesia has for years now been the most conspicuous contributor to Hispanic film, though critics cling to Pedro Almodovar like a life raft. I noticed the outrage when de la Iglesia's splendid Balada triste de trompeta/The Last Circus carried off a major 2010 festival prize and the approval of Quentin Tarantino. Any of his films is an event and the new El bar/The Bar is instantly recognisable.
The single take opening picks up the cell ‘phone conversations of Blanca Suárez (the daughter in Almodovar’s La piel que habito/The Skin I Live In), discussing her blind dates where they send ring-in ‘photos, criss-crossing those of the de la Iglesia regulars on the footpath, Hill Street Blues style, until they all converge on Terele Pávez’ small cafe bar. Gormless Secun de la Rosa is the handy man and Carmen Machi (also great in Vilaviciosi de la lado) is playing the slot machine. Bearded Mario Casa (Witching and Bitching) is working on his lap top making him the only one who doesn’t pay attention to trim Señorita Suárez.
A junkie stumbles in to use the loo and religious nutter Jaime Ordóñez generates confusion till Pavez calms him down. De la Iglesia grotesques are accumulating.
At this point one of the businessmen customers leaves and a shot is heard. Through the window the cafe group see his body on the street. Only the road worker in his fluoro jacket goes out to help (downwards angle - we know what that means). Confusion and terror inside. Yes they are in the middle of one of those sinister government cover-ups.
Trying to figure it out, the retired cop produces his pistol and demands to see the contents of one man’s attaché case which proves to be his lingerie salesman samples. The junkie stumbles out looking like the exploding man from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. The barflies' attempts to survive prove counterproductive - and generate an unpredictable plot line.
The characters each get their revealing scene, self-sacrifice and self-interest on display until the one traumatized survivor makes it out of the street grating behind all the policia activity.
The de la Iglesia grotesque comedy and striking imagery are back - the dead man's blood picking out a square, a pattern in the tiled street, disgusting, gaunt Ordóñez is skinny enough to be pushed through the escape hole greased with cooking oil, a corpse bleeds out of its ears. Carmen Machi's jackpot winnings get used as coins on the dead man's eyes and her burned hands are dressed with toilet paper from the cellar where they survive on Cola and crisps
However de la Iglesia is trying to work variations on his usual product - confined location and time span here, with a finale under the streets rather than in the usual perilous high place. The appealing Suarez stays immaculate, like Tony Curtis in The Great Race pie fight, only to get the full grime and grease treatment. He plays straight faced, unlike the self-satirising Carolina Bang who has been fronting her husband's movies.
Craftsmanship, pacing and performances are spot on but the mix of yuck elements and gags is losing contact with our concerns, despite references to Ebola and financial meltdown but what the heck? It's a new Alex de la Iglesia. It's still going to be better than ninety percent of the material in the film festivals that ignore him.