by Lee Purvey
A nation with a complex and largely unspoken history of economic injustice, destruction of indigenous culture, and state-sanctioned violence, Chile is a ripe setting for Pablo Larraín’s new film, The Club, a blackly comic psychodrama that uses the Catholic Church as a vehicle to explore the interaction of blame, repression, and penance in modern life. Shot in impressionist blues and greys through fisheye lenses, the screen swells with the festering stench of its contents, evoking the warped delusion of nearly everyone that passes through the frame.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Producers: Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín
Writers: Guillermo Calderón, Pablo Larraín, Daniel Villalobos
Cinematographer: Sergio Armstrong
Editor: Sebastián Sepúlveda
Music: Carlos Cabezas
Cast: Roberto Farías, Antonia Zegers, Alfredo Castro, Alejandro Goic, Alejandro Sieveking, Jaime Vadell, Marcelo Alonso, José Soza, Francisco Reyes
Premiere: February 9, 2015 – Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 5, 2016
US Distributor: Music Box Films
The Club is set in a small coastal town in southern Chile, hilly and weather-beaten. In this Duluthian milieu—filled with the yapping of dogs and the ceaseless shush of the ocean—stands a pale yellow house, a religious “retreat” where the Church sends members of the clergy who have been implicated in unpleasant criminal endeavors. Though nominally tasked with acts of penance—prayer, song—the residents’ true purpose is clearly just to stay out of the spotlight. As diverse in their sins as they are in their denial, the priests have been brought to the house for a number of reasons: complicity with the torture and murder perpetrated by Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, the kidnapping of infants from their poor mothers, several instances of child molestation.
This last transgression sets the plot in motion when a victim follows one of the priests to the retreat, a literal return of the repressed that threatens to unbalance the delicate social ecosystem firmly tended by the house’s leader, a nun played by Antonia Zegers. Following an unexpected act of violence, a suavely righteous emissary (Marcelo Alonso) arrives from Santiago to assess the house and interview its inhabitants. What he finds runs the gamut of self-trickery, with each of the residents employing their own system of denial and excuse to explain their sins. For one resident, Father Ramírez (Alejandro Sieveking), this process of repression has reached its literal conclusion—no one (least among them Ramírez, who is basically senile) remembers what brought the priest to the house in the first place.
Occupying a position of royalty among this litter of sick pups is a full-grown Greyhound—a competitive racing dog, which is the house’s prized possession (as well as a source of income). His name is Rayo and for a while the plot looks like it might hinge on the residents’ battle with Father Garcia (Alonso) over their ability to own and race him. But Larraín, and all of his characters, know there are greater evils at hand and Rayo soon becomes but another accessory to transgressions far worse than small-town gambling. With the clearly very unstable victim still lingering around town and Father García closing in, the residents resort to a newly hideous act in the interest of self-protection. Maintaining a hands-off approach to plot and thematics, Larraín leaves it up to the viewer to make something of this nihilistic climax.
Where last year’s Spotlight took a carefully respectful—if, resultantly, somewhat sanitized—approach to similarly unpleasant subject matter, The Club walks straight into the heart of darkness. What we find is a society that turns ugly the minute it is forced to gaze upon its own mutilation. While we receive a full list of their sins, we never get much of a sense of these characters as distinct personalities, except in vague terms of their sickness. As such, we’re left to mostly guess at their motivations—by the end, it feels like this world’s complete lack of moral sense might be the point. Probably, The Club is right to avoid invective against such an easy target, but it runs the risk of exploiting a painfully real topic. When the film ends, the sheep is back in the jaws of the wolf. Larraín might ask, What’s the difference?