Released to a fanfare of critical accolades at Berlin this year, Pablo Larrain’s The Club is a welcome surprise for those who believed his next film was to be a long-gestating remake of the gangster classic Scarface. Instead of grinding against the Hollywood machine he’s u-turned back to his native Chile for another lacerating dissection of power and abuse, that sets its spittle-flecked moral outrage against a backdrop of blackest humour. Whereas in Tony Manero, Post-Mortem and No, Larrain’s crosshairs weretargeted at the heart of the Pinochet regime, here he’s realigned them at the insidious wranglings of the Catholic Church.
Opaque in both image and content, The Club is set in the sleepy, salt-blasted coastal town of La Boca where four men live together in a life of somnambulistic routine, all officiously controlled by their pernickety housekeeper, herself an ex-nun. It soon transpires that these men are priests, excommunicated for a myriad of offences ranging from child abuse to the theft of babies from ‘undeserving’ homes. The house is a “centre of prayer and penance” a prison of sorts where the men can indefinitely ‘atone’ for their prior transgressions. As such, they are only allowed out during anti-social hours to limit their interaction with the town’s people, unable to handle money, plus additional rules that intend to inhibit the call of temptation. Their single pleasure is the care and training of their greyhound Rayo, who they race in local competitions, yet are forced to watch from afar with a pair of binoculars.
Their frugal, impenitent anonymity is threatened by the arrival of a fifth priest, Father Lazcano. Within minutes of arrival, his appearance in the small town peaks the interest of itinerant fisherman Sandokan who proceeds to spew out in graphic detail the list of sexual humiliations committed against him by their new arrival. Unable to stem the flow of bile, Lazcano commits an act of shocking violence that forces the house under investigation by Father Garcia, a member of the ‘new church.’ This distinction between the church of old and the church of new quickly evaporates as Father Garcia seeks confession from the four priests. What develops is a meticulously controlled series of transgressions and unrepentant revelations that force both sides into drastic action. As each party compromises themselves further the need to close ranks and silence the abused draws ever closer.
What impresses most about Larrain’s masterpiece is how it sustains its all-encompassing pungent tone. From it’s bleached and smudged digital imagery to the blast of unlistenable crimes that pours from Sandokan’s mouth, the film is unapologetically ugly in both form and content. You’re in an undoubtedly bleak world where an Arvo Part soundtrack is used to lighten the mood. But ugly and bleak should not be confused with dour and for all its virulent anger, there are moments of dark inky humour that allow for brief respite.
The cast are uniformly excellent, though standouts include Antonia Zegers as Mother Monica the housekeeper whose desire to keep the status quo reveals a ruthlessness that belies her meek exterior, whilst Roberto Farlas’s Sandokan presents no easy representation of victimhood, a man profoundly damaged by the ecclesiastical love he equates with his abuse and is therefore damned to repeat the crimes committed upon him. His initial confrontation is born as much from anger as it is a disturbing attempt to seduce the priest back into his arms.
All too disturbingly real in it’s portrayal of institutional power, The Club offers no easy passage to salvation. At the end the priests are forced to endure a punishment of sorts, an ironic twist of the knife that presents itself to them as a bewildering inconvenience. Yet in doing so the abused is led back into the arms of the church, tethered to its care and sanctuary, but most importantly, so that he dare not bite the hand that feeds him ever again.