Pablo Larraín’s “The Club,” the Chilean nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, is a searing, riveting indictment of the Catholic Church told through the story of a group of disgraced priests forced into imprisonment in a beach house. These men have strict rules about when they can leave the home, and are told never to speak to anyone. Just as the Catholic Church has been moving around pedophile priests and protecting their identities, these men are forced into this remote location to live out their days in solitude. And yet from the beginning of Larraín’s visually striking work, they’re pushing the boundaries of their restrictions, even with the help of the woman sent by the church to monitor them. They’ve been caring for a race dog, and have been watching it win races from a distance. They’ve begun to look back at the civilized world, and that world is about to come crashing to their doorstep.
“The Club” really centers on the arrival of two men—a priest who will join them in sequestered life, followed shortly by a younger man named Sandokan claiming abuse by said religious official. And he claims it loudly. In a riveting sequence, the man shouts details about his abuse at the house from the front step. The priests inside don’t know how to respond. They pace. They are visibly nervous. What if people hear the accuser? What should they do? A gun appears, and the new resident is told to go and basically fire a warning shot at his accuser. He puts one in his own brain instead.
Naturally, such a violent incident brings attention, and another new religious official arrives, this time to essentially quiz the men about their pasts and figure out their future. While these gentlemen haven’t exactly embraced their near-imprisonment, the prospect of being discovered, sent to jail, or worse seems to now be on the table. They have to act, and act drastically, to maintain even their meager way of life. The final act of “The Club” is narratively fascinating in the way Larraín uses this tale as a study in the failure and corruption of religious institutions worldwide, groups that often scapegoat victims and commit new crimes to cover up the old ones.
“The Club” is a visually arresting film, shot through blues and grays that make it always look like twilight by Sergio Armstrong (who also shot Larraín’s “No” and Sebastián Silva's “The Maid”). Much of it also looks like we’re seeing the action through a dirty, beveled window, the light from this beach town overwhelming the lens. And Larraín and Armstrong stay tight in close-ups on their characters' faces, many of which look like they reflect years of conflict and depression. Just look at Sandokan’s (Roberto Farías) unkempt mop of hair and beard, as if he has been fractured to the point that he can’t really understand. Antonia Zegers gives an excellent performance as the woman who controls these men to protect a church she clearly still loves, but who also seems to enjoy being the conduit between them and the real world. She likes the control. In fact, these are all men who had control at some point in their life, and they seem to have difficulty giving that up.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about “The Club” is that it’s a film about very serious subjects that doesn’t feel at all torturous. In fact, some have gone as far as calling it a pitch-black comedy given the scrambling on the part of the Fathers as they try to salvage their pathetic lives. In the end, that’s a major part of what Larraín is asking: As the church goes to extremes to hide its own sins, what is it really protecting anymore? Is it worth saving? And yet none of this fascinating drama feels like a lecture. It’s a movie that almost doesn’t reveal its brilliance until it’s over, as one ponders its themes and appreciates its deft, light touch. Larrain doesn’t present easy answers—and I love the unpredictable ending of the piece—letting viewers walk away and discuss the themes of “The Club” more than be handed easy answers. With an issue like this, from a daring filmmaker like this, easy answers are the last thing we need.