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Why ‘The Club’ Director Pablo Larraín Knows the Catholic Church Won’t Respond to His Controversial Film

Why 'The Club' Director Pablo Larraín Knows the Catholic Church Won't Respond to His Controversial Film

READ MORE: James Franco’s Movie Column: ‘The Club’ Turns Religious Sinners Into Cute Old Men

Unpunished crimes hidden under a false sense of divinity are
a common occurrence within an institution like the Catholic Church, which has
often preferred to encourage secrecy and impunity than face the wrath of
collective judgment. Although numerous accounts of terrible misconduct within
the Church’s ranks have evolved into compelling cinematic works, most recently in
the form of films like “Spotlight,” none of them had observed those fallen from
grace as bluntly and complexly humanizing as Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín does
in his latest Golden Globe-nominated feature.

The Club” (El Club), a title
that refers to the sickening yet fitting exclusivity of the facility it focuses
on, follows a group of priests and a nun who were retired from their duties in
response to the heinous activities they committed in the name of God. Together,
they have formed a community with its own rules purposely in place to protect
their darkest secrets at all costs. But when an unexpected event brings about
unwanted attention from their superiors, the members of the club will seek to
maintain their way of life even if it means straying from the righteous path
even further.

Larrain who, besides being a filmmaker is also a producer
with several other projects already in the works, never looks at his subjects
with patronizing eyes, but rather with a compassionate gaze that aims to find
what is still human under the sinful veil that has defined their lives. They
are not simply monsters in an open prison, but rather men capable of monstrous
acts enabled by a system that is fearful of the truth. With a decisively
singular visual aesthetic and a myriad of pitch perfect performances, even in
the most harrowing scenes, “The Club” feels like an unsettling thriller coated
in subtle biblical references that heightened the tension between their
corrupted lifestyles and the justice we hope is coming their way. It all
appears to be deceptively simple while being nothing short of sophisticatedly
harrowing.

Indiewire recently spoke with Larraín, who is currently editing his
upcoming film “Neruda” in France, about the characters that inhabit “The Club,” his aversion for homogenous cinematography and why the Church is more fearful
of the press than of Hell itself.

Following your Academy Award-nominated film “No,” what sparked your desire to
make a film like “The Club,” which is very different tonally and in scope?  Was there a particular scandal or story related
to the subject of priests who have committed sexual abuse and gone unpunished that
motivated you?

It
was born because, many years ago, I saw a photograph in a newspaper, or it
could have been online, I’m not sure, that said there was a very beautiful
house in Germany with mountains in the background and a beautiful green meadow.
It looked like if was part of a commercial for Swiss chocolate. Under that
photo it said that in the house lived several other people, but there was one
of them in particular that was a Chilean priest whose last name was Cox, who had been accused of sexual abuse and had fled justice and now lived in Germany.
That caught my attention and I started asking myself who else could live in
this house and more importantly, what kinds of things happened inside this
house.

I thought it was very interesting and unsettling to take the camera and
put it inside this house without knocking on the door or asking for permission,
just doing it. We started investigating and we realized that these houses exist
in Chile. Alongside Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos, we designed this
story about these priests who lived in this prison they have fabricated themselves.
It’s a very special prison from which they can leave whenever they want. The
doors are open, there are no keys, there is nothing stopping them, but they
decide not to leave because that prison is their life and they decide to
protect it.

What was your process of creating each one of these conflicted characters? Each of them has a very particular mission in the story.

We
tried to design some characters based on real life people and others that are
completely fictional, but in a certain way we wanted to put all of Chile inside
that house, and we wanted to put all the facets of the church inside that
house.

Each one of those priests represents distinct sensibilities within the
church. Even though they might seem similar, they are very distinct form each
other. These are priests who have been designed to love God and to love their
fellow men, but in reality they have ended up only loving themselves. That
paradox was very interesting to us. 

It’s
a little bit like what happens to all of us. I believe that perhaps we all have
that individualism that makes us live inside a prison that we imposed on
ourselves. It could be a certain job, a relationship, a marriage, and that’s
what we discussed with the actors but in a very special way. The actors never
had the screenplay. We never gave it to them.

Why did you decide not to give them the screenplay and keep them in the dark
about what their characters would endure? Did you hope this would enhance or
shape their performance?

We
thought it would be an interesting exercise to see how the actors, without
knowing the story all that well and without knowing their own character or the
others, could somehow try the acting exercise of simply being present and this
way give a certain mystery to the characters. That’s how it happened. The actor
is in danger because he doesn’t know a lot about the story, he only knows a few
lines that he’s just read from a piece of paper he’s just been given. He starts
fabricating this character from a humanity that is at risk, a humanity that is
missing because he doesn’t know it. 

That
sense of being lost or of missing something in the actor, having a lost actor,
filters onto the character and then the character becomes impossible to
describe, which is what we wanted. When you are capable of describing something, then it doesn’t interest me any longer.

What’s truly
admirable is how you manage to humanize them without justifying them. 

I’m
interested in showing what they are and they have done, but it also interests
me to look at them with compassion. That’s what I do with them. I look at them
with compassion. I try to like them and to love them, because if I don’t, it
would start to seem like I’m making moralist cinema in which the characters are
judged and there would be a certain ethical systematization that decides what
is correct and what is not. I prefer to show them and let the audience be the
one who judges them if they decide is worth judging them at all.

When you give
the audience clues, for example, when Sandokan describes how he was sexually
abused, the description is very graphic, but it’s a description in which the
viewer has to imagine those images. I thought of filming the images he was
describing, but I realized that if I filmed it, it would be my version or my image
of the description of the abuse he is giving us. If I don’t film it, but I
describe it in detail instead, is the viewer, departing from his own mentality,
who creates that image.

That’s much more dangerous that what I could do by
filming it. There is nothing more perverse than the human mind. It’s much more
interesting to provoke an image that has do to with each one of the viewers, a
private image in the mind of the viewer, than trying to create an image that
would group them all.

It often appears that
Sandokan, the mentally disturbed man who comes to their doorstep to shame them,
is in a way a scapegoat. It’s almost as if he is there to become a Christ-like
figure who must pay for their sins. Was it your intention to create such
biblical parallels?

Those
are the things that one tries to hide for the viewer to detect. We work hard on
them, so that it’s the viewer who sees them. I think that if I talk about the
readings or meaning of the film it would all become boring. What you are saying
makes a lot of sense, but I prefer not to be the one giving the film those
readings and let the viewer, like yourself, fabricate them.

However, there is
an underlying biblical idea, because if you take a look at the history of
humanity there is something very interesting, ultimately what allowed our
species to survive over other species that existed on earth thousands of years
ago, is that we were capable to generate collective ideas and intentions. Homo
sapiens emerged because we were capable of generating collective ideas that
were interesting for al of us and religion is one of the most powerful ones.

I
think religion was the first great tool of human abstraction and is the first
great idea that enters the human imaginarium. It’s the first idea of entertainment
and fiction that existed. God is the first hero, years later came Jesus, but
the first hero of humanity was God. When you deal with a biblical tale you are
dealing with some of the first ideas we had, in general there are very
interesting things there. The foundation of the human imaginarium is in the Bible.

“The Club” has a
rather
unique visual style. Its hazy
purple hues create an effect that makes it seem like we are watching from
behind a foggy or steamy window. What was the thought process or intention
behind creating this look with your DP?  

Because
I find what’s happening with HD terrifying. In the past, when you made a film,
the negative was processed in a laboratory and a very important part of the
process was washing it with water. Once you process the negative you have to
wash it in order for it to be seen and be usable. You would wash it with water
and the chemicals were mixed with water; therefore, all the chemicals used in
the processes used water from the country where the laboratory was. That water
came from different places and it was always different, thus the result of the
image was distinct. The chemicals had to be at a certain temperature and needed
to be calibrated, so the laboratory process made the films look different. A
German film always looked different from a French film, and a French film
looked different form an American film, or a Mexican film, or a Chilean film, and
so forth.

There was a certain geographical relationship between the
water and the negative — today, that is gone. The chip or card used in digital
cameras is made in the same factory and is the same everywhere, so the films
look very similar to one another. That’s terrifying to me. The other day I was
at a festival and at the beginning of the festival they show a compilation of
clips from all the films playing at the festival, and all the clips look like
they were from the same film. Some with darker colors, but in general, they look
the same. 

For me, first of all, there was a necessity to find a unique
imaginarium for this film, so that hopefully, as much as possible, there is no
other film that looks like this. That was the first motivation, because
otherwise images start having very little value and your image is the same as
mine and mine is the same as the other guy’s image. It’s like if it’s the copy
of the copy of the copy. At that point it’s just about repetition.

The other thing is that this idea of the characters not
knowing where they are and having actors playing, characters that are in a type
of limbo, needed to be reflected in the visual approach that Sergio Armstrong, the
DP with whom I always work, used for the film. What Sergio discovered was a
system of filters that allowed for a steamy or hazy image, an image that
doesn’t let us be sure if what we are seeing is in foreground or the
background, in the center or on the side, if it’s in focus or out of focus, or
what colors it has. It creates a kind of visceral sensation that’s not only
visual but also transforms into something that affects the tone and the
atmosphere. Cinema needs that. I think sometimes we get confused. Of course, we
need great screenplays, characters, dramatic structures, plots, subplots, but we
also need atmosphere and tone. Sometimes a film can be more valuable because of
its atmosphere than because of its dramatic tale. We really put effort into
creating that.

We used an HD camera, RED, and we attached Soviet lenses
from the 1950s and ’60s. With those lenses the camera’s sensor is incapable of
capturing the image correctly. There was a distortion, a certain rejection
between the lens’ nomenclature and the camera’s nomenclature and that created
an image that the camera wasn’t able to control. Between the lenses, the
filters, and a camera that wasn’t capable of reading the lenses’ nomenclature,
we achieved this particular look.

Given that the
Catholic Church is still a powerful force in Latin America and in many
countries around the world, what was the reaction of Chilean audiences towards
the film? By the same token, was there any negative reaction from the church
upon the film’s release?

The
film was well-received by Chilean audiences. Chile is a country where these
topics can be discussed openly. The Church continues to be a very powerful
institution, but when it comes to films like this, it doesn’t say anything
because the Church knows a lot about the media. They know that it’s best not to
do anything because if they do, they will give the film a higher profile and
make people think about it. The Church would never say anything because they
know the media very well. It’s a great paradox.

If you look at a film like “Spotlight” or “The Club,” they both used the press in their own way because it
seems that the press, in an indirect and strange way, ends up being one of the
few forms of justice. Since justice sometimes takes a long time to arrive or it
never arrives because the reach of the Church is so powerful that it doesn’t
allow it to come, the press, especially in the last 20 or 30 years, is doing
work that has helped expose these cases.

In “The Club,” the way the nun
threatens the visiting priest is by telling him she is going to talk to the
press. Because of this the priest decides not to close the house. The Church is
much more afraid of the press than of Hell. The Church’s paranoia is very powerful, thus the media plays a very particular role that it didn’t have before and the
film tries to show that.

On that note, tell me
about the importance of Father Garcia, played by Marcelo Alonso, who comes as
an outsider into this dark microcosm that the house has become. In a sense, his
vision of what the Church should be is idealistic and different from the jaded
men he encounters there.

He
is a Jesuit priest who represents this idea of a modern and populist Church
that doesn’t want to protect pedophile priests and that wants to reestablish
itself. It wants it to be a church that’s much more worried about the poor and about
spread the word of Jesus Christ. It’s a church with a new direction based on
what Pope Francis talks about. It’s a church that wants to be more connected
with its followers and get away from this secretive image of bishops wearing
rings. It wants to become a more approachable church.

Then there is the old church, the one that has been
operating the same way for two millenniums, and whose mechanisms are closely
related to power. This old church tries to keep everything between four walls
and to protect its delinquent priests. The conflict between the old and the new
church is represented in this house by its members and the arrival of this new
priest.

But, as I told you before, if
there is something the old church and the new church have in common, besides
their love for Christ, is that they are equally afraid of the press. When the new priest, who represents the new
church, is threatened with the possibility of the press finding out, he ends up
behaving in a very similar way to the priests that live in the house, who in
turns represent the old church. He sins.

It seems like your
recent films showcase an array of Chilean stories that connect the past and
present of the country. Why do you think these stories have attracted you in this order?

It
has happened accidentally. I know it sounds irresponsible, but it hasn’t been
all that thought out. I didn’t plan to do a trilogy.

While waiting to make “Neruda,” the idea for “The Club” came about and we filmed it in a very short
period of time. I’m editing “Neurda” now. There is really not a plan. It’s all
been very organic in terms of the films that have emerged. These are the films that
have emerged and that I have become enchanted by. This doesn’t mean they
appeared magically, but they are films that have come together organically
departing from stories that I find interesting without having a master plan or
thinking, “Let’s make political films about Chile’s recent history.” It ended
being that way, but it wasn’t planned that way. 

I think this makes it more interesting, because one connects with the
idea of the film rather than with something that’s larger and more pretentious
than that. These are like love stories, some end up very badly and others end
up in a good way. 

Besides directing
your own projects, you and your brother Juan de Dios have your own production
company, Fabula. Being in this position both as a director and as producer,
what’s your perception of the current state of Chilean cinema?

Right
now, Sebastian Leilo (“Gloria”) is filming a wonderful film called “Una Mujer
Fantástica” and Marialy Rivas (“Young and Wild”) has recently filmed “Princesita.” We are very happy to make films like this and above all be part of this Chilean
movement. I think Chilean cinema is doing things right both in fiction and
documentary.

Last year was a great year for Chilean documentary film, with the
likes of Maite Alberdi or Mr. Patricio Guzman. There is a lot of interesting
activity and this reflects the fact that Chile has always had a very important
artistic sensitivity that was hidden for many years under the curse of the
dictatorship but once we could free ourselves from that a cinema emerged that
shows a sensitive people. We have learned to do things better. There has been a
learning process, or at least I feel I’ve been part of a learning process, in
which collectively we have been able to create valuable things.

We’ll see
what’s next, but what is happening is that there are filmmakers in Chile that
are less self-complacent and who are working more. That’s the key. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

“The Club” opens in select theaters today, Friday, February 5.

READ MORE: Berlin Review: Pablo Larraín’s ‘The Club’ is a Bracing Critique of the Catholic Church

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