Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers and Marcelo Alonso
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: March 25th
At the beginning of The Club, the fifth feature from Chilean director Pablo Larraín and his first since his Oscar nominated No, we are presented with an almost tranquil scene. We are at a beach by the Chilean coast, the sunlight is fading, the screen appears to be tainted blue, and the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt fills the soundtrack. We witness a group of people, four men and one woman, playing and training a greyhound, it feels as if we are observing a vacation between a group of long standing friends or family members. Something doesn’t feel right however once the greyhound has been entered in a local race. The woman of the group is by the racetrack, leading the dog into the kennel for the start of the race while the men observe at a distance, through binoculars, as their dog wins the race.
The arrival of an unexpected guest confirms these suspicions as we learn this group is comprised of Catholic priests, the woman is a former nun, who have been sent to the house by the church on account of their past misdeeds including child abuse, child abduction, and involvement in the Pinochet regime. The new priest’s arrival brings another uninvited guest, a disturbed young man named Sandokan who stands at the gate of the house shouting in graphic detail about the abuse he suffered at the hands of this priest. Given a gun by the other housemates in order to scare him off, the priest instead turns the gun on himself. The suicide leads to the arrival of a younger, more reform-minded priest called Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), who interviews the members of the house in order to make them recognise the severity of their deeds and to ultimately close the retreat down.
In the setting of this isolated house, Larraín has managed to find the perfect microcosm to examine the structure and attitudes of the Catholic Church and their insular nature. As Garcia confronts the priests on their past, their reactions are a mix of denial, an unwillingness to accept responsibility, and outright arrogance. For Garcia this presents a troubling conundrum, as for all his desire to help these men, there is the responsibility to preserve the image of Church by any means and this image is threatened by the wandering presence of Sandokan and all that he represents: a walking victim of the abuse of power.
For Sandokan, being abused by a priest was akin to being abused by a messenger of God, and his confusion in differentiating the person from what they are supposed to represent is key to the hypocrisy of the Church that Larraín explores. While the purpose of the priests relocation to the house was an opportunity to reflect and repent on their sins, the reality is anything but. The group spend most of their days engaging in various vices, alcohol and gambling being the main culprits. For all of Garcia’s attempts to bring them to the right path — he pours the booze down the sink and orders that the dog be removed — all these are swiftly ignored for the simple reason that these men feel they don’t have anything the need to repent. It is ironic that it is Garcia who suffers the biggest crisis of conscience.
All this concludes with an act that shows the lengths that a powerful group like the Church will resort to in order to protect themselves and their image. It is act that reflects the film’s sardonic title, the exclusivity of the organisation that serves themselves over the people they are supposed to protect. Larraín’s film is an angry indictment on this attitude that continues to hold supreme throughout the Church and while Larraín is too smart a filmmaker to demonise them as one-dimensional caricatures — they are more pathetic than truly evil — it is more what they represent that needs to be condemned. While the title card that opens the film quotes Genesis 1:4, “God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness”, it appears that the Catholic Church has made those differences indistinguishable.