2016, NR, 98 min. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Starring Afredo Castro, Robert Farías, Antonia Zegers, Marcelo Alonso, Alejandro Sieveking, Jaime Vadell, Alejandro Goic, José Soza.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 11, 2016
Chile’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film in the 2016 Oscars is a grim indictment of the Catholic Church, and, specifically, the church’s sinful strategy of moving known pedophile priests from one diocese to another or, as here, sending them into exile while simultaneously keeping a pontifical eye on them. Director Larraín (Tony Manero) and his director of photography Sergio Armstrong have made a visually striking film about the inherently corruptive nature of organized religious institutions and the strange lengths those institutions will go to obscure the truth.
Set at a perpetually overcast beachside cottage for disgraced priests, the film gradually introduces us the intimacies of these four men and their female housekeeper and overseer, Sister Mónica (Zegers). They tend the garden, smoke and drink wine with their meals, and train a greyhound for the local dog races. Nonetheless, their lives are strictly regimented – they have to watch the races from atop a distant hilltop, with binoculars. All in all, it seems more like some odd clubhouse than what it’s supposed to be: a prison for Christianity’s most wayward disciples.
Led by bespectacled Father Vidal (Castro), the household’s preternatural calm is upset by the arrival of yet another morally bankrupt priest, Father Lazcano (Soza). He is accompanied by an emissary from the church, who notably refers to the group as a community and to the house as a shelter and a house of prayer. “This house is very important to the church,” he explains. Important, it becomes immediately clear, because it keeps the church’s dirty secrets out of the direct line of sight (and thought) of not only the parishioners but, indeed, the world at large. This group home isn’t a shelter for the accused but for the church itself. It should be noted here that although The Club focuses on Catholicism, the story could easily be seen through the lens of any organized religion.
Lest I give the impression that Larraín has crafted an epically dour downer of a film, there are moments of ghastly levity, as when the assembled priests greet Father Lazcano by saying that, had they but known of his arrival, they would have thrown some “meat” on the grill. “Did you bring any sausages, Father?” one priests quips. Like I said, it’s humor of the most disturbing sort. Lazcano’s arrival also attracts the attention of one of the young boys – now a grown man – whom he had molested. In a truly horrific sequence, the man plants himself outside the house and, while shouting at the top of his voice, lists in excruciating detail the exact nature of the padre’s offenses. Extreme violence ensues.
The next, and final, houseguest is Father García (Alonso), a Jesuit psychologist sent by the Vatican for reasons initially unclear. Is he there to close down this group home, or has he arrived to simply clear away any traces – physical, mental, or otherwise – of the previously mentioned violence.
The Club isn’t an easy film to sit through (certainly not if the viewer is Catholic) but it’s a dramatically important and deeply contemporary piece of work. With the Boston-centric Spotlight winning the Best Picture Oscar, it can be perilously easy to mentally confine such religious predations to (mostly) our own shores. Larraín’s film reminds us, in often frighteningly personal and cringeworthy ways, that these darkest of deeds and the resulting betrayals of trust have happened and presumably continue to happen wherever the priesthood exists, and whenever the leaders of any organized religion attempt to sweep sin under the rug.