Film Review: The Club

From the director of 'No,' this drama about pedophile priests replaces the depiction of ethical and moral dilemmas with all the details one might hear on a daytime reality show.
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Pablo Larraín’s latest narrative feature, The Club, is about four defrocked, pedophile priests, and Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), whose sin was his participation in a Chilean adoption ring that stole newborns from unwed mothers. Ortega is inspired by the real-life Father Gerardo Joannan, who comforted the mothers by saying Mass for their “stillborn” infants. Largely impenitent, the priests live together in a remote coastal town in Chile and are kept in check by a creepy former nun, Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers, Larraín’s wife). Their confinement in the house, equipped with a chapel and supported by the Catholic Church, is penance for their past transgressions.

The priests celebrate Mass twice a day, sing hymns, and in their brief hour of freedom walk an abandoned stretch of beach. Sister Mónica, who may or may not be an innocent victim of wrongdoing, and the five priests also race a prize-winning greyhound. The money they garner from betting on it has built a nest egg for the day when they believe the Church will abandon them. After Larraín lays out the pattern of life in the house, a new priest joins the group, one somebody in town recognizes. Soon, and predictably, a Vatican representative arrives, a psychologist, who is to decide the final fate of the priests. It is through Father Lazcano’s interviews with the five men that we learn in graphic detail the nature of their crimes.

Like the Chilean writer-director’s other crime films, Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010), The Club is fueled by a fascination with psychopaths, although here Larraín adds the minutiae audiences get from daytime reality shows. Tony Manero and Post Mortem are the first two entries in a trilogy set in Pinochet-era Chile that concluded with No (2012), about the plebiscite that removed the dictator from power. With the exception of No, Larraín’s movies are atmospheric and deeply disturbing dramas, not unlike his first, Fuga (Fugue, 2006), which is about a talented composer’s psychological breakdown. In The Club, Larraín imagines the broad sweep of the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal largely from the point of view of the priests, although he maps, in part, the Vatican’s response in the actions of Father Lazcano (José Soza, who appeared in Fuga).

Similarly, in Post Mortem, the explosive events that ended Salvador Allende’s life and his legally elected government unfold from the point of view of a morgue attendant who knows only that there will be no room for all of the dead. His indifference to the overcrowding and to the cover-up he witnesses of Allende’s murder is a foreshadowing of the brutality of Pinochet’s rule. None of Larraín’s protagonists and supporting characters in the crime dramas is sympathetic; on the contrary, they are mostly rebarbative, so while his well-crafted movies may be seen as character studies, what the viewer takes away is the vapid, soulless center of a psychotic personality—in The Club, that of each of the priests. Larraín’s crime movies are not to be mistaken for parables—they are far too linear and austere, and they lack a moral high ground.

Larraín simply fashions, as he does in The Club, a portrait of depravity in which condemnation is meaningless. While audiences might accept that circumstance and the writer-director’s resulting nihilism in his illustrations of Pinochet-era Chile, they will be hard-pressed to accept it in a movie about the Catholic Church’s decisions with regard to men who raped children. In choosing the microcosm, a few priests to represent the many, and one briefly despairing Vatican cleric, Larraín is not compelled to background the events, to depict complexity or nuance, or even the longstanding internal strife in the Church over what to do with pedophiles. In many ways, this mirrors medical science’s debate in the last half of the 20th century over the nature of male homosexuality and the psychopathology of child rapists.

Larraín’s indictment of the institutional Church in The Club is deserved and apt, but it is accompanied by some simplistic conclusions, and a leering interest in the priests’ sexual habits, rather than the violent core of their personalities. In Father Lazcano’s troubling interviews with Father Vidal (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro), the defrocked priest rather unconvincingly argues for the sanctity of homosexual lovemaking. In doing so, he appears to celebrate both his sexual orientation and the indefensible, incurable illness of pedophilia. In the eyes of the Church, Father Vidal sins on both counts, but in reality his homosexuality is distinct from his criminal behavior, from his domination and torture of children. While Larraín touches upon Father Ortega’s misogyny, there is a notable absence in the film of heterosexual pedophile priests.

Had The Club been about the dilemma Church authorities confronted, and myopically avoided with a cover-up, then Father Lazcano’s actions might serve as an object lesson, and the film a parable about institutional wrongdoing. When the cleric discovers the depths of the scandal, and confronts his own tenuous position at the Vatican should it become widely known, he saves his own skin. Everybody is tainted in The Club. In Larraín’s dystopia, excess is the primary means of expression. Sandokan (Roberto Farías), a local fisherman and a stand-in for the priests’ victims, is just one example. A defining scene unfolds early in the film in which the fisherman, though admiring of a naked young woman, is unable to consummate his desire for her; his sexuality is confused, and the woman senses it, as well as the potential for violence in that circumstance. Rather than trusting this portrait of a victim of child rape, Larraín later provides Sandokan with a heap of psychological maladies, and the admission that he wants to be cared for by priests because the priest who raped him was his first love.

Sandokan loudly recounts his victimization throughout the movie, threatening the house’s anonymity. Larraín apparently views him as a Christ figure, but because the screenwriters fail to place their story in an archetypal context, the miserable drunk is simply a stereotypical victim in a debauched and indifferent universe. The Club’s melodramatic conclusion, involving Sandokan as the center of an arcane Biblical ritual, accompanied by Arvo Part’s relentless score, would be farcical if the movie possessed any moral complexity or authority. It does not, leaving one to wish for the deft hand of Luis Buñuel—or perhaps for the appearance of Vincent Price and the unfolding of an old-fashioned horror movie. (House on Haunted Hill is better title for Larraín’s movie.) There, the docile greyhounds would exact revenge in true Biblical fashion, as the hounds of hell.

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