Many estimated directors have (had) a muse that inspired and encouraged their creations, and Pablo Larrain seems to be no different. It started with Larrain’s second feature and the depiction of human darkness that comes from the obsession with the limelight in Tony Manero (Larrain, 2008), continued with politically-ridden hysteria and violence, imbued with emotion but also comedy in Post Mortem (Larrain, 2010), then mellowed down and became more thoughtful in the story of Chilean politics and the 1988 plebiscite (No, Larrain, 2012), and then delved back into the darkness of the human soul with Larrain’s latest completed project, The Club (Larrain, 2015). All of these films have two things in common: Pablo Larrain’s directorial skills and the amazing acting talent of his human brush, Alfredo Castro. The combination of the two paints the never-simple, but layered and emotionally charged stories on the canvas of humanity. It seems that Larrain does not fear to explore even the most intrinsically black shadows of human nature with Castro present, since the immense talent of the latter guarantees that he will, time and time again, become the perfect character to convey these unsettling stories brought on by troubled human natures – and Castro’s talent especially shines with his embodiment of the complex, predatory, but subdued Father Vidal.
The main story of The Club may follow the recent trend by exploring the Catholic Church and its sins, but instead of looking at the multitude of issues from the outside (like the excellent Spotlight, 2015, McCarthy), we get thrown straight into the middle of a sample group of ex-priest sinners – 4 former priests in exile, whose living conditions are mainly controlled by a nun, Sister Mónica (a great performance by Larrain’s spouse, Antonia Zegers). Their suppressed and semi-bored existence, further emphasised with the blue-saturated cinematography, where dog races seem to be an unusually usual allowance, is disturbed immediately after the arrival of the fifth exiled priest, who is closely followed by one of his victims; a ragged man who calls himself Sandokan (Roberto Farias). Sandokan’s loud and mournful accusations bring the water to a fast boil; momentary panic results in a suicide and the subsequent events bring about a new player: Father García (Marcelo Alonso), who at first glance appears to be everything a Catholic priest should be: strict but with an air of virtuousness, still quite young and quite attractive, but immediately taking on the father-like authority. His intentions are not clear at first and the old members of this ‘penance Club’ accept him with a great measure of caution, especially due to his stance as a member of the ‘new Church’. But he still turns out to be no more than a larger pebble on the paved road to the emotionally charged finale.
What makes The Club interesting is that it shows us the dirt and the evil of humanity, but not with an air of judgement. Every once in a while, there is a whiff of humour and even compassion, which the audience can feel especially for Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking), whose mind – and with it, recollection of his sins – is long gone. The other exiled priests with their (for the longest time undisclosed) sins show basically zero remorse, as does Sister Mónica with her – as it turns out – less than pure record, and boredom seems to be their main punishment. Father Vidal especially almost revels in his own past, proudly labelling himself as the “king of the repressed”.
Despite the heavy topics that are addressed in this film, the ending brings almost zero resolution. Even as we expect that some kind of penance will take place, it becomes clear at some point that the unblemished image of the Church is far more important than the punishment of the evil that lurks in its midst. This “penance” Club apparently follows the same rule as the Fight Club (Fincher, 1999): You do not talk about this Club, either. Even as the evil doers embrace the embodiment of all of their crimes and take it to their centre, we get a clear feeling that there is more to it than meets the public eye: this is no penance, but another way to keep the troubling waters at bay.
THE CLUB directed by Pablo Larraín is in UK cinemas 25 March 2016.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © 2016 Music Box Films