Written by Guillermo Calderón, Pablo Larraín and Daniel Villalobos
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Director Pablo Larraín is known for his extremely fascinating social commentaries about his native Chile. Most famously, he tackled the Pinochet regime and its legacy with his trilogy comprising Tony Manero, Post-Mortem and No. With The Club, Larraín looks at Catholicism, another major Chilean institution, and the abuses of power that can occur within the priesthood. Interestingly, he doesn’t judge the actions of the characters but rather presents a portrait of a group of devastatingly corrupt and flawed human beings against a misty, almost dreamlike, backdrop. This effect allows a chance to look past the dark and troubling reality of these men’s lives and possibly witness a glimmer of something redeemable, even if that is just for one brief moment.
In a small Chilean town, unbeknownst to the townsfolk, disgraced priests are sent to live in a share house with the expectation that they live the rest of their lives in atonement with the hope that when they die they will still be accepted into heaven. The priest’s crimes range from child molestation to baby-snatching to threatening exposure of government secrets, and so their stay in the town is on the condition that they remain separated from the populace. When Father Lazcano (José Soza) is brought in as a new member of this “club”, a violent upheaval occurs which brings them to the attention of the church and Father García (Marcelo Alonso) who is sent in to investigate the matter.
The Club is a film about confrontation. The priests are confronted with the corruption of their body and soul, not only by Father García’s probing interviews which resemble confessions, but also by a wandering stranger named Sandokan (Roberto Farías) who is both the catalyst of events but also the key to the priest’s redemption (if that is at all possible). These confrontations draw out the men’s secret lives, the ones they hid behind their position, which only now can be brought to the surface and properly explored. This is especially the case with Father Vidal (frequent Larraín collaborator, Alfredo Castro) who tries to reconcile his sexual depravities with his feeling of divinity, that in some way the more heinous his sins, the closer he gets to God.
This confrontation also extends to the viewer. Larraín challenges us to accept these men for who they are. He never places judgement on them, only presents them as damaged individuals. By gaining insight into their thoughts, fears and dreams, Larraín wants us to, if not fully accept or even sympathise, but to at least understand that they are not monsters but humans who do monstrous things. It is a fine line to tread but Larraín expertly traverses the territory taking the viewer past the characters’ inherent otherness, past the wall of hatred that immediately erects itself between society at large and the perpetrators of such horrible deeds, to find some kind of neutral ground.
One of the ways in which Larraín is able to achieve this is to disarm the viewer and allow this acceptance to coalesce is through the cinematographic techniques employed by himself and his director of photography, Sergio Armstrong. Using a digital camera with the same Soviet-era lenses used by Andrei Tarkovsky, and only shooting at particular times of day, Larraín washes the film in an extreme soft focus almost to the point of blurriness. This not only has the effect of visualising the grey areas in which he wants us to tread, but by using this photography in conjunction with the local landscape he creates an almost comfortable environment for us to do so. This allows the audiences to witness events in a different light, both literally and figuratively, and perhaps just for a moment to not only see the monster, but also the monster’s wounds.
The acting across the board is first rate, particularly Alfredo Castro who gets most of the heavy lifting as he is given the task of humanising an irredeemable man and succeeds in doing so. But the most remarkable performance is by Roberto Farías as abuse victim Sandokan around which the film revolves. His performance provides the torture and anguish that is essential to defining the emotions that Larraín draws out of the other characters and makes their journey mean something more than just their need to be right with God.
The Club will be a divisive film for many. The idea of looking past unforgivably heinous crimes to the person beneath is unthinkable to most. But Larraín manages to engender a flicker of sympathy, even if it is just for a moment, and it is enough for the film to achieve its aim. We are never allowed to forget the crimes of these men either but this manages to just compound the heartbreak and reinforce the idea of not only what a conflicted world we live in, but that we create it for ourselves, just by the mere fact of being human. The Club is a powerful film that can still only provide possibility rather than certainty, because it is probably the best that these men could hope for.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from October 7 – October 18. Visit the festival’sofficial website for more information.