Pablo Larrain's The Club

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by José Romero

I have to admit feeling indifferent to Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s last two movies, Post Mortem and No. Both had clear revisionist goals towards key historical moments in Chilean history, but they went overboard in underlining their purpose. This is especially true of No which told of the plebiscite that drove Augusto Pinochet from power; by seeking to recall the visual look of TV at the time, it ended up becoming something of an advertisement, albeit one really well made.

The Club (El Club), which had its world premiere as part of the international competition at the Berlinale, is the exact opposite. The club of the title is a group of “problem” priests living in a retirement home in a small coastal town called La Boca. There’s a sense of unease from the beginning, the feeling that we’re not being told everything, and that information is being handed out bit by bit. The movie opens with a group of men playing with their dog on a beach; next, the animal is being used as a medium for betting in greyhound races. Its name is Rayo and its owners are already planning to attend regional and national tournaments. Minutes later, we discover that these ambitious men are Catholic priests with a dark past who are being held in the home somewhat against their will.

Every club has its codes and set of rules; the mystery of its members is part of the charm. Larraín allows us entry into this world and its miseries. What happens outside has no effect on what is about to come. These four priests have been banished as punishment for atrocities ranging from pedophilia and infant trafficking to collaborations with military torturers. When a death occurs, another member of the clergy comes to investigate away from the public eye, so as not to embarrass the church by provoking national headlines.

The cast is first rate: Alfredo Castro, Larrain’s “muse”, whom the director refers to as the “best actor on the planet”, Alejandro Goic, Jaime Vadell, and Alejandro Sieveking; there’s also a nun played by Antonia Zegers, who is both confidante and warden. Larrain uses these actors to tell a story – thankfully not “inspired by real events” – about a group of undesirables and their probable fate. The question he poses: what happens to those who sully the church’s reputation?

There is no direct answer to this question; what we learn comes from watching the men’s routine and their interrogations by the investigating priest. This heightens the intrigue and leaves a rotten core to this story; nothing is made obvious to the audience. One is offended by watching this world of ecclesiastic deals and unassumed guilt, and that is the uncertain atmosphere Larraín gives to his film. This visual motif is more suggestive than in No, thanks in no small part to the use of 1960s-style Russian anamorphic lenses as favoured by Andrei Tarkovsky. This balance between form and function makes this Larrain’s best film to date. It’s aggressively sacrilegious, but many people will find it intelligent, brave, and skilfully designed to simultaneously repulse and challenge an audience. The Grand Jury Award is a well-deserved prize for a key film in recent Latin American cinema, even if it was still overshadowed by Jafar Panahi’s masterful Golden Bear winner Taxi.

Edited by Neil Young