Review: The Club by director Pablo Larraín

By March 29, 2016


The club

Pablo Larraín’s previous offering, No (2012), was a joyous melding of techniques which told the story of the his native Chile’s referendum on the presidency of dictator Augusto Pinochet; it was the culmination of a loose trilogy about the years of Chile’s military dictatorship also comprising Tony Manero (2008) and Post-Mortem (2010). Larraín found himself ‘between projects’ – he is currently working on Jackie, about Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following the Kennedy assassination, and developing a second remake of Scarface – and was spurred by a single photograph to set forth on the distinctly unorthodox shoot for The Club.

The cast did not receive a script – which had yet to be completed – and the details of a scene were only given to the actors shortly before they were about to shoot. Working on the fly, co-writers Larraín, Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos were the only ones with any idea of where it was all going; the actors acquainted themselves with their characters and the story over the course of the two-and-a-half-week shoot. Working things out on-set is usually a recipe for disaster, but Larraín pulls off a minor miracle with his fifth feature.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize Silver Bear at the 2015 Berlinale, The Club tells the story of four defrocked Catholic priests who live in a secluded, ramshackle house in the sleepy beach town of La Boca. The priests have been exiled to La Boca for committing various transgressions which the church would like to keep quiet; they live under the constant supervision of their tireless housekeeper, Hermana Monica (Antonia Zegers); their days are tightly structured and they are forbidden from communicating with the outside world. The priests occupy themselves with the training of a racing greyhound, from which they are earning substantial money by gambling on local races, and watching reality TV. The arrival of a new priest sparks an incident which draws attention to the presence of the priests, and the church sends in a reformist young crisis counsellor, Padre Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), to delve into the priests’ pasts and draw them closer to seeking penance and redemption.

The Club is a lean, intense work that is rife with metaphor; not a frame is wasted in this acutely observed ensemble piece, burning with a sense of injustice without stooping to polemics, eliciting the laughter of despair and grim recognition. Larraín’s oeuvre revels in discomfort, he is not afraid to confront uncomfortable truths, and that has reached its apogee here: the scenes in which the priests are interviewed and reveal the details of their past misdeeds are gripping but difficult to watch. Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography swathes everything in a dim, crepuscular light, as though a pall hangs over proceedings, bringing to mind the work of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan in its chilly grandeur; while Carlos Cabezas’ Jonny Greenwood-esque score adds a further note of presentiment.

Larraín put a huge amount of faith in his cast, and they all rise to the challenge admirably: Zegers delivers a haunting performance as the dutiful housekeeper, serving to outline with incredible poise and sensitivity the complicity of good people in abetting the excesses of corrupt institutions. Alonso is stunning as the forceful and idealistic church emissary, functioning as the viewer’s outrage, our avatar through this world of secrecy and obeisance. Equally compelling are Alfredo Castro as the weary Padre Vidal and Roberto Farias as the rudderless abuse victim Sandokan. Larraín’s methods appear to have aided the ability of his actors to inhabit rather than portray their characters, allowing for a greater degree of freshness and spontaneity; there is a sense of it all unfolding organically before us.

Though Spotlight (2015) will be remembered by posterity, this is the film which lays bare the horror of systematic abuse and the culture of concealment on all levels of society. There is an anger at the core of The Club, but also an awareness of our powerlessness to fight back the darkness, a concession of its centrality to the human condition. Along with Patricio Guzman’s The Pearl Button (2015), some extraordinary work is coming out of Chile, cinema serving as a means of reconstructing and contextualising national tragedy. The Club is a breathtaking work which manages to encompass rage and bathos within its slow-burn, low-key, tragi-comic frame, and extend Larraín’s examination of his country’s scarred past.

Follow Daniel Palmer on Twitter at @mrdmpalmer