A series of controlled demolitions laid with meticulous care to undermine and ultimately explode the rottenness of institutional authority, particularly that of the Catholic church, Pablo Larrain‘s “The Club” burst onto the screen this morning in Berlin, and still now, debris rains down all around. A bold, blunt, yet clinically intelligent film that provokes as much for its dark humor as for its righteous outrage, it’s all at once a gripping thriller, an incendiary social critique and a mordant moral fable. The confidence on display from Larrain, who broadens the purview of his already excellent “Pinochet Trilogy” (“Tony Manero,” “Post Mortem,” “No“) is impossible to overstate: this film is his finest hour to date.
Five men and one woman live in a house in a run-down coastal town in Chile. The men keep a greyhound, Rayo, training him on the beach, and finally, entering him in a local race, which he wins. But the men watch from afar through binoculars; the woman brings the dog. And then we discover the men are all priests who “no longer serve their parishes,” and who are allowed little-to-no contact with the world outside; the woman, Monica (Antonia Zegers) is a nun, their minder and their jailer. However, a new arrival, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza) disrupts the harmony of this little club and the rigid structure of their lives is jeopardised when a vagrant, Sandocar (Roberto Farlas) arrives at their gate and starts bellowing in graphic detail about the sexual abuse Lazcano visited on him as a boy. Inside, the men look at each other, white-faced, and the nun tries to talk to him, but there is no staunching the flow of horrors he shouts. The threat of exposure to the whole community looms, until Father Lazcano himself intervenes in the most shocking way.
And just a few minutes have passed — as beginnings go, this is one of the most arresting and unsettling (reminiscent of the opening of “Calvary,” but going much, much further into near-unlistenable detail) and it sets out the stall for the uncompromising, riveting story to come, as a sixth priest, Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), is sent by church authorities to investigate the occupants of the house with the hopes of shutting it down. What he discovers during confessions/interrogations, and how complicit he becomes in their sins and the sins to come when Sandocar returns, means that by its end it’s hard to tell who, of all of them in this nest, is King Rat.
The film also looks remarkable — willfully unpretty, with DP Sergio Armstrong favoring low-contrast, almost cloudy interiors, backlit, obscured faces, and outside, near-featureless silhouettes against darkening skies. Somehow these images, set alongside the Arvo Pärt music (incidentally, he also features on the “Knight of Cups” soundtrack) and the frequent choral numbers conspire to create an uncanny mood, that leads us to read almost everything that occurs on multiple levels at once.
Because already in that early scene of the torrent of pornographic recollections raining down on that house of disgraced priests, the doubly or trebly allegorical nature of the film is clear. The house is Purgatory, to be sure, but it is also the Catholic Church. Pull out wider, and it comes to represent the corruption and rot endemic in any enclosed institution that refers only to itself, and seeks only its own survival, no matter the cost outside its doors.
Every character is brilliantly well-drawn in quick lines that somehow suggest so much more: Monica’s pretty, smiling countenance hides unsuspected ruthlessness, the most seemingly jovial of the priests is a man who stole babies he believed were unwanted to give to childless couples, Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro) loves the dog, refuses to confess and holds views about his unrepentant homosexuality that amount to heterophobia. And the volatile, raving, profoundly damaged Sandocar gets several grimly revealing scenes and monologues that illustrate the cyclical nature of abuse — excoriating speeches (Guillermo Calderón, Daniel Villalobos and Larraín are co-writers) that even when they show flashes of humor, clearly come from a place of profound anger.
Because even though it does have a thin vein of the very blackest comic sensibility running through it, this is a furious film. And it easily could have ended on a note of bleak despair (in fact, there was a moment when we thought it had), of setting suns and the impossibility of forgiveness. But while hardly hopeful, Larrain instead adds a final twist in which the weirdest kind of justice is served. The Club is explicitly Purgatory from the very beginning, it is exile, it is penance, it is empty routine without the possibility of grace. But only in these final moments does it become Punishment, one that nearly fits their many crimes: so deliciously ironic, tragic, painful and perfect that the devil himself must have had a hand in it. [A]