Middle Men

Nick Pinkerton on Pablo Larraín’s The Club

Pablo Larraín, The Club, 2015, color, sound, 97 minutes. Father Silva, Father Vidal, Father Ortega, and Father Ramírez (Jaime Vadell, Alfredo Castro, Alejandro Goic, and Alejandro Sieveking).

PABLO LARRAÍN’S THE CLUB is a purgatorial piece of work—I say this as a recommendation. It begins with an image that combines paradisal peace and deferred satisfaction. A man stands on the beach with his dog. The man describes circles in the air with a furry object attached to a pole by way of a string, and the dog, a greyhound, gives chase, back and forth, leaping and snapping, round and round and round.

The dog is in training for the regular local races that are the sole entertainment outlet for a group of four older men, including the trainer, Vidal (Alfredo Castro, a frequent Larraín collaborator), and one woman who live together in a group home in an ass-end-of-nowhere seaside town somewhere in Chile. We learn in due time that these men are defrocked priests, the woman, Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers), a former nun placed there to look after them. In this little house in this quiet little coastal town they take their meals and their prescribed constitutionals and deliver their exaltations in the chapel, round and round and round—until one day a new housemate shows up. His name is Father Lazcano (José Soza); he has a mournful, bearded countenance faintly recognizable from El Greco, and like his companions, he’s been excommunicated for indiscretions, his of a sexual nature.

Very soon after Father Lazcano’s arrival, his transgressions will be described in the most graphic of terms by Sandokan (Roberto Farías), a drifter with a swaggering, piratical bearing who, when a boy, was the recipient of the Father’s attentions, and who shows up bellowing accusations outside of the spruce, quiet little house, where usually the only sound is the lapping of the waves and the crackle of the fireplace. Lazcano replies to these accusations by putting a bullet into his brain with a revolver provided by his housemates. Mónica will dutifully sweep his spilled blood from the front steps—a process which, like much that is unpleasant here, is treated with a scrupulous amount of detail—but the incident isn’t so easily swept under the rug. The threat of scandal results in the sudden appearance of Father García (Marcelo Alonso), a kind of troubleshooter from the Archdiocese of Santiago de Chile with a resume full of fancy advanced degrees and a history of shutting down these very sort of “safe house” retreats, part of an ongoing effort to rehab the image of the Church.

The housemates attempt to conceal the circumstances surrounding Lazcano’s death from Father García, who cross-examines them in a series of interviews that recur in the same locked-in two-shot setups, but this becomes impossible when Sandokan, not sated with the blood of one priest, decides to stay in town and continue his persecution of his former clerical persecutors. As the ex-priests, pursued by both García and Sandokan, struggle to cling to their denial of self-knowledge and their comfortable seclusion, The Club takes on elements of a thriller, assigning and subverting audience identification in devious ways. When Vidal, walking on the seashore, catches sight of Sandokan, we for a moment share what appears to be the pedophile’s subjective perspective, and during García’s inquisitions of the priests—who have been banished for reasons including pederasty, kidnapping, and the possession of dangerous political secrets—it is tempting to sympathize with their anguish, rather than with his hard, unblinking sense of justice. Sandokan, for his part, is a gushing font of anguish that just won’t turn off, and the scenes in which Vidal and García try in turn to placate him are among the film’s most unnerving. Here is a victim, one of many, but this one so defined and consumed by his victimhood that it spills out of him uncontrollably, so that nothing can staunch his logorrhea of profanity—not since The Exorcist’s little Regan has the Church had to silence a mouth like this. He is so ugly and relentless in reasserting the fact of his damage, and breaking the meditative silence that hangs over this ragged, sleepy little village, that you might find yourself wanting him to please just shut up. And it’s at this moment that the movie has got you.

Pablo Larraín, The Club, 2015, color, sound, 97 minutes. Sandokan (Roberto Farías).

There are doubtless those who will prefer the smoldering indignity of Spotlight, ever so slightly tinctured for flavor with self-recrimination, to the moral murkiness of The Club, just as there are those who believe The Big Short, by offering the viewer a fixed ethical vantage point, provides a better view and more trenchant commentary than The Wolf of Wall Street on the men who play craps with the world economy. And this matter of preference doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition—though for my money the movie that doesn’t neatly define itself before it closes, that leads the viewer into a blind alley and leaves them there, is almost always the movie that lives longer in the mind, gnawing and scratching away. Larraín has made a such a film, a work steeped in Catholicism’s processes of penance and mysterious images that internalizes the tormented coexistence of Church-sanctioned values of tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness with the unforgivable sins that have occurred under its watch and within its walls. From early on, the possibility of violence suffuses the charged atmosphere, and though the film is least convincing at moments of climactic release, there are a handful of scenes that balance agonizingly on the razor’s edge, as in the exchange where Sandokan, lingering over the grave of Father Lazcano, asks García if the abuser whom he loves and hates is now in heaven, and García replies that he is perhaps somewhere in between, paying for his sins.

This liminal space, this spiritual waiting room, is in a sense the location of the group home. Shot by Larraín’s regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, The Club is overlaid with a milky haze, as though seen through cheesecloth. Larraín and Armstrong’s last outing, No (2012), also used a visual “hook,” shooting on three-quarter-inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape to reproduce the quality of 1980s television broadcast footage, and the digital blanching of the footage in The Club is no more a mere gimmick than the “flashing” used on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). It defines the movie’s tone, at once vaporous and physically graphic. It gives the impression of an all-permeating damp fog, a dramatis personae who are half-ghost, and a setting that is somewhere between the Chilean seaside and Purgatory, where tens of thousands of years of penance will continue long after the film closes, round and round and round.

Pablo Larraín’s The Club opens in New York on Friday, February 5.