If the biggest names in the recent Berlin Film Festival lineup largely disappointed with their shiny, starry films, there were more than a handful of filmmakers who totally justified, or exceeded, our prior fandom. Chief among these was Pablo Larrain, the Chilean director of “Post Mortem” and “No,” who showed up almost unheralded with his latest film, “The Club” (A grade review here), which, along with Patricio Guzman‘s extraordinary “The Pearl Button” made this a banner Berlinale for Chile. “The Club” is a mordant, excoriating, bitter indictment of the culture of concealment in the Catholic Church, featuring no big stars, set in a depressed crummy seaside town, painted in drab colors and featuring quite possibly the most horrifically detailed and borderline-unlistenable tirade about clerical child sex abuse ever committed to film. Needless to say, it’s absolutely terrific.
With the film only having just premiered, we got to talk to Larrain while he was still in the slipstream of the initial response and a few days before he’d be awarded the Grand Jury Prize Silver Bear (essentially the runner-up trophy) by Juror Claudia Llosa, who simply described the film as one “[The Jury] absolutely loved.”
How important is it to you that the initial reaction has been so positive?
Oh, very, very. Usually I work with a large crew and when there are more people involved then you talk about it and you have an idea of the movie in advance, and what others will say. This time I didn’t have that so I had no idea…
Well, it really crept up on everyone, was it a deliberate choice to keep it under wraps?
What happened was I was waiting for other movies to be confirmed, so I was an “unemployed filmmaker.” So I said to my brother, look I have this idea… can we shoot it like really soon because one of those movies might be happening in December? So we had to write the script in three weeks, while we were doing pre-production, and then we shot the movie in two and a half weeks.
Right, wow, so did you find that the preproduction process changed the conception of the film being written?
Hmm — it was all together. We had the concept of the move, and when we were scouting and talking to the actors, we were writing. And then when the shoot started I had a script that wasn’t completely done, so me and the other two writers were writing at night.
But you know, we didn’t give the script to the actors, only just before the scene was being shot, and so they didn’t know what the other characters were — it was like an exercise to see if it works. Of course there’s a way that you can give all the information to the actors and they will prepare for ages, and of course it can be great, there have been wonderful performances in cinema that has been made like that — I’m not saying this is the “right way” to do it.
I think you should say that. You should claim everything else is wrong. Like, “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles…
Yeah! Haha! What an asshole, right? Like, Daniel Day-Lewis, what is that? (And of course he’s amazing).
But we just got into this mood where I had the luck to have trust from them. I knew where the movie was going but nobody else did, so it was just that scene that day, and the actor, no costume, no make up. The guy would get in in the morning and would go and get dressed and somebody would wash his face — but no makeup or hair or anything — and he would just sit in front of the camera and we would explain what the scene was.
And take one was usually horrible, nobody knew where they were. Take two started to make sense and then from take three to five or ten or fifteen, then they’d just grab it, and go through this different approach to usual, which is just about presence, and then we capture it — “Just do this, try to understand this.”
So did that bring you a greater understanding of the acting process?
What happens, what I discovered is that the very, very first thing you do as an actor, what they did as actors, when they did not know much of their character, was to love them. They have to love them, it’s the first step for an actor and it’s so beautiful to see somebody interpreting someone and his first connection to the character is through love and compassion.
So that’s why they look so fragile.
And I try to love my characters as well, even though they could be the meanest person in the world, and have done things that you could consider immoral or wrong or whatever, so that also gives a perspective on the tone and the atmosphere in the film. And we would shoot with two cameras. Never two cameras at the same time, but we have like multiple setups with the camera so we could move quickly from one side to the other — it’s the only way you can shoot a movie at that speed.
This approach to the performances maybe contributed to the sense that you can interpret the film on many levels. Obviously, it’s an allegory.
Yes, it is The Club. And what is The Club? Is it the house or the Church…
Or any institution that only looks inward?
Yeah, it’s the logic of the group. If you see the priests when they are alone they look so fragile yet when they are together they can be very dangerous.
That’s right, I felt like there was almost something animal in that, something about herds or packs. Did you do a lot of research into these houses [where disgraced priests are hidden away by the Church but otherwise unpunished] ?
Oh yes. they still exist all over the world — my country, your country.
Well I’m Irish so I think we can definitely say we have a few…
Wow, yes Ireland is an exceptional case, even more so. But there was this Chilean priest called Cox who had just like, gone. And somebody followed him, tracked him down to this German-Swiss house. So he did this thing, whatever he did in his congregation [You can read the outline of the story here] and then left before justice could be done to him, and he went to live in this house that was paid for by the organization, and by his congregation. Somebody took a picture and uploaded it and you can see this Swiss house, in these hills, like it is coming out of a fucking milk commercial or chocolate or cheese. And I’m like, why is this guy even living? This is frightening, that these people, after what they did, are going to live the rest of their lives in a place like this.
There is a real sense of tremendous anger in the film over that lack of accountability.
Well, I was raised in Catholic schools and I met a lot of priests who were very decent people. I also met a lot of priests who are today in jail. But I also met a lot of priests that I don’t know where they are. So I was just wondering where they are. And we talked to priests and they would tell us about these houses, how they were. But when we tried to approach some of them, we could not find anyone [who would help], because of course they’re hiding. And so we created fiction about it, which is the house you saw in the film.
That house does really become its own character, the way you shoot it, looking up at it, like it looms.
And the reason it’s that house is very simple. I have a house on the beach for fifteen years now, in a very nice place that’s like five kilometres from this town. So when I’m there I would go and buy bread every day in this town and I was like “I want to make a movie here” because this place is so amazing.
And then when we started thinking about this we realized it could be a great option to do it there. It had this house, and it had all these houses that are shut down for most of the year — it only opens for one month a year in the summer, like right now. And then you have these dog races… [the film features a subplot about greyhound racing] and it all just fed in.
And it worked because when you’re in this blurred space of faith, redemption, compassion, guilt, forgiveness —
Yes, it’s like the space in between all those things, right?
That’s right. You’re inside all of those strong contrasts. I dunno how to say in English, but if you pour water on it, it’s like the water would go through it and if you put a glass under it, then the water would come out a different color. It would be changed into something different.
Like transubstantiation, perhaps?
Yeah! So, we all drank that water to see how it feels…
Larrain has another film lined up he hopes to shoot soon and is also still working on Universal‘s “Scarface” remake which has been a “very nice experience” but which he was reluctant to talk about more because “I keep looking at people announcing movies that never get made and I don’t respect that very much… so I don’t like to talk about movies until they’re made or right about to get made. [“Scarface”] is just not there yet.”
But as for “The Club,” already before it had premiered, let alone won in Berlin, the film had picked up deals in the U.K and France, and with Larrain a known quantity Stateside after his Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination for “No,” you can expect a U.S. deal to be announced very soon. Go see.