The 2015 Oscar race for best foreign language may be among the most keenly contested of this year's Academy Awards, but in Pablo Larraín's superbly tough parable of Catholic faith, guilt, sin and redemption "The Club" we already have a very early front-runner for next year's race.
This tart, smart and consistently surprising blend of ultra-serious material and darkly comic execution looks set to catapult director and co-writer Larraín – whose three previous films addressed the impact on Chile of dictator Augusto Pinochet - into the front rank of international arthouse filmmakers. Larraín's 2006 debut "Fuga" made few international waves, but his loose trilogy — comprised of "Tony Manero," "Post Mortem" and "No" — earned significant critical acclaim, even if they now appear, in retrospect, as an extended bout of throat-clearing as prelude to this gem.
Entirely set in a remote, picturesque coastal fishing-village, "The Club" focuses on a humdrum-looking house where four grey-haired priests reside under the watchful eye of Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers). The exact nature of this place "of refuge and prayer" only gradually becomes apparent, following the arrival of a fifth resident, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza). Barely has he set foot in the house than a specter from Lazcano's past, the deeply troubled Sandokan (Roberto Farias) shows up on the doorstep, loudly and graphically accusing Lazcano of pedophile abuse. The priests' reaction sets in chain a series of events which brings sharp-eyed Jesuit investigator Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) onto the scene – guaranteeing that nothing will ever be the same again.
"The Club" is a bold and bracing allegory of a church tainted by scandals – most notably pedophile sexual abuse by priests and related cover-ups – and undergoing painful but overdue reform under the current pontiff. Indeed, given His Holiness' flair for publicity and embrace of modernity, it's no stretch to imagine the picture becoming compulsory viewing for all bishops across the planet. But theists and atheists alike will respond powerfully to Larraín's grasp of character, dialogue and narrative development, in a story (co-written with Daniel Villalobos and Guillermo Calderón) whose dramatic convolutions may skirt credibility towards the latter stages but whose finale concludes matters in a persuasive, wickedly witty and provocative manner.
Larraín oversees ensemble playing of the very highest order, with his regular totem Alfredo Castro first among equals (and near-unrecognizable) as the preternaturally calm Father Vidal — who spends most of his time training the priests' lucratively speedy greyhound ("the only dog mentioned in the Bible!"): Rayo is a bullet-like brindle whose initial prominence in the plot portends jokey shenanigans in the mold of "Father Ted" and Ealing comedies.
But while there is humor aplenty here, the laughs are kept under suitably tight control, ensuring they're always at the service of the film's deeper psychological and even theological goals: with only a few tweaks, we could be in the terrain of ecclesiastical murder-mystery, or even the world of P.D. James.
But "The Club," for all its literary parallels and theatrical aspects, is always an inescapable cinematic work. Sergio Armstrong's widescreen cinematography deploys mid-grade digital video and wide-angle lenses to deliberately distorting effect, interiors cast over with a stultifying shale-blue haze even when the sunlight is bright outdoors. And it's testament to Larraín's achievement that "The Club" manages to feel so startlingly fresh and surprising, even when its latter stages are set to Arvo Part's bell-tolling "Canto In Memoriam Benjamin Britten" – one of the most over-used pieces of music in world cinema over the past two decades. Somebody up there likes him.
“The Club” premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.