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The Club, a provocative moral drama from Chile about disgraced Catholic priests

Pablo Larraín (No) turns a religious story into a metaphor for the Augusto Pinochet years.

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We all have problems with our parents, but Pablo Larraín's play out on the national stage. His mother, Magdalena Matte, belongs to one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Chile, and his father, Hernán Larraín, serves as president of the Independent Democratic Union, a right-wing party founded in the 1980s to support military dictator Augusto Pinochet. As students at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in the early 70s, both parents were influenced by the procorporate authoritarianism of the Gremialismo movement, which helped drive President Salvador Allende from power. Pablo, who was born in 1976 and made his directing debut at age 30, has spoken out against the repression of the Pinochet years, and in his films he's tried to make sense of his family's role in Chilean history: Tony Manero (2008) is a chilling portrait of a Santiago serial killer in the bleakest years of the Pinochet regime; Post Mortem (2010) deals with a disappeared woman in the last days of the Allende presidency; and No (2012) follows a team of political strategists in the run-up to the 1988 plebiscite that finally ended Pinochet's rule.

With The Club, Larraín has found a powerful metaphor for the Pinochet years, one that strikes at the heart of his parents' (and his own) identity. The film takes place in the coastal village of La Boca, among a group of disgraced Catholic priests who've been sequestered in a house by the ocean to atone for their sins. Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro) is a pedophile; Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic) is a baby snatcher. Not all of them are criminals—Father Silva (Jaime Vadell) simply ran afoul of the Chilean military—but all of them are unrepentant sinners enjoying a quiet, idyllic life in their rustic seaside home. This setting allows Larraín to examine their several varieties of denial, even as the men's little haven is increasingly threatened by a disturbed man intent on avenging his childhood sexual abuse. As in the national memory, the crimes of the past just won't go away.

Father Ortega calls the house a prison, but it's a pretty soft one: the men pray, sing, celebrate mass, hear each other's confessions, and spend the rest of the time doing as they please. They're allowed to walk around town at specified hours (though they're forbidden to go out together, speak to strangers, or handle money or cell phones). This quiet routine is shattered with the arrival of a new boarder, the bearded, haunted Father Lazcano (José Soza), and, shortly thereafter, his scruffy, emotionally damaged victim Sandokan (Roberto Farías), who stands outside the house shouting out Lazcano's past abuse in language so graphically ugly I won't repeat it (even in the Reader). Father Silva, a former army chaplain, thrusts a revolver at Lazcano and orders him to go outside and fire a warning shot; instead the priest approaches his victim and, showing a penitence his housemates lack, shoots himself in the head.

This shocking development, not ten minutes into the film, prompts a response from the Vatican in the form of Father García (Marcelo Alonso), a polished "spiritual director" who takes up residence in the house to counsel the others and, simultaneously, conduct an investigation into what happened. The priests and their minder, a defrocked nun named Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers), cover up the incident, claiming that Lazcano was depressed and smuggled the gun in himself. Even so, García doesn't like what he sees. "This house is not a spa," he tells Mónica. "It's not a retreat. It's a center for prayer and repentance." García bans alcohol from the house and forbids the men to wager money on Monica's greyhound, a prizewinner at local races. The men bristle at his sanctimony, and as he interviews them one by one, they hasten to justify their past offenses, inventing their own Catholic theology.

Father Silva is really being protected by the church more than punished: after 35 years in the military, he was caught keeping a notebook of all the atrocities revealed to him by soldiers in confession. "Secret burial grounds, theft of money," he explains to García. "Secret torture houses, murder. Everything." This might position him as a hero in the story, but Silva is a ruthless man, schooled in the worst human impulses and given to hard realities. He scoffs at the efforts to prosecute these crimes. "A lot of soldiers repented," he points out. "But those left-wing civilians wanted to resolve a spiritual matter in a secular court. They realized it was their only chance at revenge, because God would forgive all of them in heaven. Even the murderers." For Father Silva, Judgment Day comes without any judgment at all.

From the opposite end of the political spectrum comes Father Ortega, who has let his liberation theology get the better of him: he's been caught running his own secret adoption service, presiding over fake funerals and transferring infants to new homes. When García brings this up in their interview, Ortega denounces him as a bureaucrat who stays in five-star hotels. "How long has it been since you were in a parish?" he demands to know. "With people, suffering people? With women who cannot bear children. With girls who don't want their children and want to throw them in the trash? Why? Why such injustice?" Because of him, he boasts, Chile has blond children in the slums and dark-skinned children being raised by wealthy families. García accuses him of playing God, but for Ortega this is the priesthood's primary appeal.

The most controversial of them all is Father Vidal, who confesses in his interview that he invited a child into his bed, "hugged and prayed" with him, and dolled him up with lipstick. But it was all very spiritual, you see. "You don't know the sickness of the mind can be cured when the body explodes," he tells García, defending human sexual impulse. Vidal is the one who spots Sandokan at a dog race and, flouting the house rules, approaches him. When Sandokan asks if he's gay, Vidal explains that he's celibate but adds, "Homosexuality has broadened my concept of sexuality. Between a man and a woman, it's just a matter of procreation. Whereas, between homosexuals, it's something much deeper." For Sandokan it's definitely been something much deeper, and he rebuffs the priest, sarcastically offering to come over and service everyone in the house. "It would be beautiful," he promises. "We could all reach holiness!"

Despite all the catechizing, The Club works beautifully as a suspense film, especially after Vidal's encounter with Sandokan prompts the victim to resume his harassment of the priests, camping out near their house and continuing to shout accusations. Threatened with exposure to the neighborhood, some of the occupants begin hatching a plot against the troubled man, and as the situation careens toward a violent climax, the characters' individual sins are all subsumed in original sin—the sin of Adam, passed down through the ages. Larraín clearly understands the concept of original sin from his many years of Catholic school: it's the kind you get from your parents.  v

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