Sometimes, as a critic, one has brushed too closely past the themes of an artwork to render an impersonal review. So it turned out to be with Pablo Larraín’s claustrophobic, grimy, intensely thought-provoking film The Club, which is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday, May 30, in a spare package that does not overwhelm the feature with a surfeit of extras.
As a child at home in Ireland, I – myself the son of a Methodist minister – used to go with my parents two or three times a year to dine in a nearby village with a priest whom my father had known to an extent for years. He was charmingly eccentric, gregarious, generous to the point of ostentation. We thought him amusingly strange and perhaps a little financially suspect, but few were more surprised than us when, in the mid-90s, he was charged with 66 counts of historic child sexual abuse. He cynically played the legal system until he could fight off a trial no more, and then he killed himself, denying justice to his many undoubted victims. I should add that I was not one of them.
In processing the news, one is inevitably torn between the volume and gravity of the evidence before one, and the memories of the aspects of that life which one bore witness to – the life that was, these crimes aside, really quite ordinary. Questions are asked as to whether this person is wholly evil, whether any shred of redemptive possibility, however microscopic, existed in such a diseased soul. And one knows those questions cannot be answered.
These questions of what to accept, what to forgive and what to forget are writ large in Larraín’s film, set in a “retirement house” in the Chilean coastal resort of La Boca for priests who have faced sexual or other scandals and who have been quietly put out of sight and mind by the church authorities. The arrival of a new priest – Fr Matias – and, shortly thereafter, a troubled man – Sandokan – abused by the new arrival, leads to a long and graphic litany of Fr Matias’s abuses and a sudden, shocking moment of violence which partially closes the story, but does not eradicate Sandokan’s discomfiture. Following these events, a Jesuit “spiritual director”, adept in crisis management, comes on the church’s orders to get to the root of the trouble and assess whether this house should be closed.
No stranger to interrogating the issue of sin, crime and hypocrisy in institutions, whether of church or state, Larrain has, with DoP Sergio Armstrong, painted a scene where any trace of beauty is only visible through a slightly hazy filter, giving it a rather grubby countenance, the symbolism of which is all too obvious. Meanwhile, in their screenplay, Larraín, with co-authors Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos have created characters so well-rounded that they terrify themselves, the earthier sections of themselves a source of both fascination and intense repression, played out on a daily basis in this open prison, their only comforter a nun – herself disgraced – who acts as their warden; and their training of a greyhound to take part in lucrative races.
Performances are never less than gripping, most notably Alfredo Castro as Father Vidal, the greyhound trainer and crushingly repressed homosexual whose sad, wise face tells its own story without having to utter a word and whose highly unorthodox attitudes towards what constitutes holiness are delivered with such gentleness that one does not even question them until long after. Larraín’s partner, Antonia Zegers, plays the distressed but pragmatic Sister Monica with a soft but sinister edge while Alejandro Goic and Jaime Vadell give marvellously bullish and fractious support as Fathers Ortega and Silva. There is even some notable contribution from Alejandro Sieveking, who plays the senile Father Ramirez, whose knack for repeating everything he hears, even if he might not understand it, proves troublesome.
The real stingers of performances in this come principally from Castro, whose dog-eared humanity cries out de profundis, but also from Marcelo Alonso as spiritual director Father Garcia, whose sharp tongue and ascetic adherence to spiritual propriety seems to mask some darker troubles of his own, and Roberto Farias as Sandokan, who gives a display of brokenness so complete that one cannot help but let the tears flow, even while being repulsed by what he relates or, in desperation, does.
In all of these performances of grotesque repression, the question is constantly whispered within the subtext – should any of these people be protected? Should not all of them be locked up? Or, if they are no longer a danger to themselves or others, is there a case for sheltering them and restoring what remains of the goodness within them? Are they wholly to blame for their past lives, or are they the product of a stifling church and an inhumane society?
None of these questions are answered in what was such a harrowing piece to watch that I had to write the review immediately to get rid of it. But the fact that these questions are asked at all, and in such a richly artistic and, at times, darkly humorous, way, mean that we are a long way down the road from the unquestioning silence of generations past. A review of this kind can only judge on artistry. Ethics and morals cannot be given a mark out of five.
Dir: Pablo Larraín
Scr: Pablo Larraín, Guillermo Calderón, Daniel Villalobos
Cast: Alfredo Castro, Roberto Farias, Antonia Zegers, Marcelo Alonso, Jaime Vadell, Alejandro Goic, Alejandro Sieveking, José Soza
Prd: Juan Ignacio Correa, Mariane Hartard, Rocío Jadue, Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín
DoP: Sergio Armstrong
Running time: 97 minutes
The Club is out on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on May 30, 2016