The Club (El Club)
Chile (2015) Dir. Pablo Larraín
Groucho Marx famously once said “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member” when resigning from the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills. I open this review with a witty riposte since this latest film from Chilean provocateur Pablo Larraín is totally devoid of any light or levity.
The setting is the remote Chilean beach town of La Boca where a small retirement home sits on the hill. But this a retirement home with a difference as the residents are four priests – Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), Father Silva (Jaime Vadell), and senile Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking) – who are looked after by retired nun, Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers).
Yet this is far from a saintly abode as they are all disgraced clergy, forced into seclusion to avoid any public disclosure that will tarnish the Vatican’s reputation. When child abuser Father Lazcano (Jose Soza) joins the house, he is followed by one of his victims, Sandokan (Roberto Farias). Lazcano kills himself, prompting anther priest Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), a crisis counsellor sent to investigate the house.
Having already targeted the oppression Chile endured from of living under a dictatorship in his previous works, Pablo Larraín turns his unfettered opprobrium to the Catholic Church and true to form, refuses to give them no quarter. The pious certainly won’t enjoy this film and Larraín is lucky that the Vatican hasn’t intervened and made it disappear, but that would amount to an admission of guilt on their part.
Presented in a washed-out colour palette to match the gloomy atmosphere that permeates throughout from the opening frame, the unrelenting bleakness of this tale is matched only by the commitment of the actors, whose religious leanings I am unaware of but doubt would exist in them given the nature of the story and the characters.
If Larraín’s ire towards the church is unrepentant, so is the mindset of the priests themselves, hiding behind the Bible to avoid culpability for their actions. Their default defence is the insistence that everything is within the purview of God’s word as they are all God’s children; one priest even claims “God made homosexuals and he is very happy with them”. I guess that bit didn’t make it into the Bible.
They may have convinced themselves with such sophistry but for the likes of Sandokan and Father Garcia, it doesn’t wash. It should be pointed out that not all of the priests are sexual offenders, but this is the one crime that is explored in the greatest detail and discussed in frank terms.
Father Silva for example was an army chaplain who broke the rule of confidentiality by keeping a notebook of all the confessions he heard, which he destroyed under orders of the military office but had memorised anyway. Sister Monica had been accused of beating an African child she adopted whilst Father Ortega stole newborn babies from whom he considered unfit mothers and adopted them out to affluent couples.
In the latter case, Ortega remains convinced that he was doing the right thing, giving the babies a better start in life and perhaps he was but was it his call to make? And while do it on the sly and not through the proper channels? The hardest to accommodate however is the child abuse, which Sandokan relates at the top of his voice in graphic detail the tawdry assurances that he would go to heaven if he obliged Father Lazcano’s advances.
Father Garcia probes each Priest and Sister Monica individually and isn’t buying into their excuses, yet his own faith is compromised as he is to judge them as per the teachings of the church, whilst exposing them would also jeopardised his own elevation within the Vatican. But Garcia’s presence has the priests concerned that he might shut the house down and, as ever, they rely on their deviousness to fix the situation.
Whilst life at the house is minimalist and interaction with public forbidden, the priests have a hobby in greyhound racing, rearing their own dog which Sister Monica enters into weekly races. This provides an extra income but Garcia sees it as gambling, another sin, and vows to remove the dog. Again, a literal plan of attack is put into play in which two birds are effectively killed with one stone, along with a tragic sacrifice.
As none of the characters having any redeeming qualities, this would no doubt be Larraín’s way of surreptitiously slipping in another social oppression commentary into this narrative, the church metaphorically supplanting Pinochet’s regime. In other words, he might be suggesting that we are products of our environment but some adapt to it different ways.
The difficulty in portraying such pernicious characters must weigh on the conscience of the actors given the religious context, but Larraín has chosen a sturdy and dependable cast, including long time collaborator Alfredo Castro and his own wife Antonia Zegers. Each actor performs with alarming credibility in relating the blinkered denial of the shamed offenders as they rattle off religious doctrine in response to an accusation.
Perhaps the most difficult role would be that of Sandokan, whose journey is a curious and ambiguous one, yet the most tragic for a number of reasons that reveal themselves late in the film. Roberto Farias plays down any obvious pain Sandokan suffers prior to showing his vulnerable side in two hard-hitting scenes that expose the psychological damage of his childhood trauma.
It is difficult to find any sense of balance in The Club but sometimes one has to be brutally direct in order to make people sit up and listen. The ending appears to offer a glimmer of redemption but is overpowered by the pervasive sense of uncertainty apropos to the endless cycle of denial these deviants have settled themselves in.
Unflinching, challenging and blunt, The Club is Larraín at his most trenchant and vociferous, exemplifying the power of his conviction.