Review: Pablo Larraín's 'The Club'

A yellow house stands just up the hillside from the street, on the outskirts of a sleepy Chilean coastal town.  Four priests are inside, welcoming a fifth to their number.  A man stands outside, homeless and mentally ill.  He intones the crimes of his abuser into the evening air almost reverentially, leaving us uncertain whether he means to humiliate or perversely praise the man who destroyed his life.  But we can see the terrible effect the litany has on its intended target.  This is how we meet The Club.

As you might expect, this film strikes a much darker tone than Pablo Larraín's previous feature, No, about the Chilean plebiscite of 1988 did.  It also feels much rougher, written and shot in a whirlwind of activity in the Chilean countryside.  But in a country that has much pain to mourn, it cries out as keenly as any other voice.

Not all the priests in the house are abusers; they're just men whom the Archdiocese of Santiago doesn't know what else to do with but stash in out-of-the-way hamlets like this one.  Not that they're not looking for other ways to be rid of these albatrosses while saving face.  In the wake of the opening incident, the young Padre García (Marcelo Alonso) comes to figure out how to shut down this house and disperse its residents, and he's got a file on everyone.

Padre Vidal (Alfredo Castro) is celibately homosexual.  This is itself not technically a violation of the Church's rules, but when he starts advocating for celibate pedophilia it's a little much for the politics of Santiago to bear.  On the other extreme, Padre Ramírez (Alejandro Sieveking), was a military chaplain under the brutal Pinochet regime.  He knows where bodies are buried -- literally, in some cases -- and so he too must be hidden away.  It isn't clear what the issue is with Padre Ortega (Alejandro Goic), but I wouldn't be surprised if it's about his drinking problem.  And nobody knows what's wrong with Padre Silva (Jaime Vadell), and he can't remember it either since his stroke.  Even the nun who keeps the house, Hermana Mónica (Antonia Zegers), seems to have her own shady past abducting "unwanted" children to put them up for adoption.

Some of these people have committed crimes, and others have merely embarrassed the church, but Larraín makes it hard to truly sympathize with any of them.  Whether by their own nature or as an effect of living in such social isolation for so long, they have grown morally dry and gnarled.  The solution they devise for the poor, homeless Sandokan (Roberto Farías) is horrific.  And yet it's not exactly out of line with what they've learned from the Church about how to deal with public embarrassment.

On the other hand, Larraín makes it just as hard to easily condemn them either.  Obviously those who have committed secular crimes should go before secular justice, but García seems mostly interested in keeping things quiet -- preserving the Church's good name rather than serving the public's good.

Even when it comes to Sandokan himself, things are hazy and confused.  I would love to have nothing but compassion for his plight, but I have to admit being repelled by his manner.  That may be my own failing; more seriously, when fortune turns in his favor he seems suddenly more astute and avaricious.  I can't blame him for looking out for himself, but he's certainly no ideal Job-figure.

The one constant here is pain.  Everyone is mired in their own particular misery.  And the Church itself, which comes promising salvation, cannot face up to its own part in causing any of it.  As difficult as it is, Larraín's film forces us to look and at least acknowledge this pain, which we must do before we can begin to heal it.

Rating: 4 out of 5