by Vadim Rizov
Dir. Pablo Larraín, Chile, Music Box Films
Four defrocked Chilean priests live communally in a house high up a hill, looming ominously over a small town, in Pablo Larraín’s The Club. This, his fourth investigation of forever-post-Pinochet-Chile, looks putrid, which is predictable, since the director delights in aggressively degraded palettes. Tony Manero’s blown-up 16mm grainstorm of dour colors and Post Mortem’s pink-tinged images, which look as if they’re projected from a poorly preserved print, provide two temporally evocative, texturally different visual perspectives on Pinochet’s coup; and momentarily moving away from film, Larraín used a period-appropriate VHS camera to film the 1988-set No. But The Club’s present-day setting logically invited a full digital upgrade to the Red Epic 4K. The texture is ugly in new and unexpected ways, which is appropriate for a film primarily concerned with the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of child sex abuse committed by priests.
There are two pedophile priests in this shelter, plus three others who serve as single-issue representatives of other wrongs committed by the church. Larraín prowls the interior of their home with a fish-eye lens that curves the walls in at priests-turned-prisoners, and the effect is predictably queasy. The priests, too, get assigned individual off-putting aesthetics. Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), excommunicated for taking babies from their single mothers, telling them the children had died and giving them away to wealthy couples, is modeled on Father Gerardo Joannon, who did the same during Pinochet’s regime; he is regularly shot in close-ups that throw parts of his face out of focus, a strange hazing of the image reserved just for him. Dementia-addled Father Ramírez (Alejandro Sieveking) has been there so long and is so out of it that no one knows what he did; sitting with his back against a window, Ramírez is blown out by daylight so bright that, paradoxically, you can barely make out any exterior detail. Whereas bright lights traditionally connote illumination, holiness, et al., here, in the opposite of a heavenly tableau, excess of light conceals visual information. Alongside these representatives of abuses of the working poor and institutional amnesia, former army chaplain Silva (Jaime Vadell) stands as a direct reminder of Pinochet’s legacy, while Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro) is the sadly predictably child molester.
Their slumberous daily routine, overseen by former nun Monica (Antonia Zegers), is disrupted by the arrival of the near catatonically silent Father Lozcano (Jose Soza), in turn trailed by fisherman Sandokan (Roberto Farías), who stands and shouts a furious litany of memories at the house. His monologue, droned in a monotone whose sustained slurring doesn’t temper the strength of his images, makes Spotlight look, explicitness-wise, like (sorry) child’s play: “They would molest us. They would anally penetrate us, and then they would cum on our faces . . . ” Lozcano shoots himself, a suicide prompting the investigatory arrival of Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), who’s convinced the brothers aren’t truly penitent and must be cast out from the church’s protective care for Catholicism’s greater good.
Garcia acts as the house’s internal scourge, conducting a series of sharply interrogatory interviews with the priests about their pasts and Lozcano’s death. These sessions allow him to directly enunciate the church’s offenses on the director’s behalf. Having written himself into a corner visually, creating a situation where about half the action takes place in close quarters, Larraín makes the most of his claustrophobic environment. When the camera slowly floats through communal areas, its relentless advance suggests menace; in close-ups the priests are pinned down with such entomological remorselessness that they nearly squirm. The soundtrack is heavy on Arvo Pärt selections reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood, and the combined effect of score and tight framing plus inventive approaches to interior coverage creates stylistic kinship with The Master, another movie about unregulated abuses of religious authority. The house is under threat from within, with embedded Father Garcia representing the external probing gaze of the “new church,” and without, as Sandokan remains a stalker-ish presence while never entering. In a shot inverting the image of the house on the hill, Sandokan sits on a beach bungalow’s roof, watching silently as father Vidal walks home. Sandokan perches in ineffectual silence, and the scene registers like an angry parody of Wings of Desire, with an abused angel sitting in helpless judgment of his presumed moral superior.
The Club is an angry broadside against the Church on multiple fronts, eschewing naturalism for blunt metaphors (Monica washing away Lazcano’s blood) and free-floating dread. In his previous films, Larraín focused on individuals whose actions were contextualized, if not excused, by their social moment; in this leap into the present, the emphasis is shifted firmly to collective guilt. Though an ensemble piece, the most weight is allotted to Castro’s priest. The actor is a Larraín regular, always willing to take on the most off-putting roles: Tony Manero’s psychopathic serial killer, a doctor reluctantly colluding with the Pinochet regime in Post Mortem, a Pinochet-allied advertising executive in No. The Club’s denouement hinges on acts of animal cruelty, which finally bring Vidal to tears. It’s the film’s dark condemnation that these spiritual leaders care more for the house greyhound than any of the people they damaged.
Tony Manero was a film designed to provoke, featuring on-screen defecation as a way to quickly get your attention. While Post Mortem was a weaker revisiting of the same era from a different perspective, No was an actual crowdpleaser. Depicting the advertising campaign launched prior to the referendum that voted Pinochet out of office, the film seemingly capped off a trilogy on the dictator’s regime, but his specter won’t fade so easily. The Club is Larraín’s angriest, most off-putting film since Tony Manero, which says nothing about how the director’s developing: he’s scheduled to next knock out two biopics (of Pablo Neruda and, leaping to Hollywood, Jackie Kennedy). For now, The Club stands as an end to (or least pause in) Larraín’s examinations of his country during and after Pinochet, again demonstrating that the past is still present in Chile while widening the scope of his indictment.