Whatever he did for his fourth film, Pablo Larraín must have known he needed to make a sharp turn. His first three films form such a comprehensive trilogy on life under Pinochet’s dictatorship that anything more would have risked tilling over old ground. His debut, Tony Manero, was a portrait of the psychopathology of Chilean life under Pinochet; he followed it with Post Mortem, taking the story back to its inciting incident, the murder of Chilean president Salvador Allende. He then went to the other end of the regime with the Oscar-nominated No, a bright, joyous yet probing account of the campaign to bring Pinochet down. It’s not as if there’s nothing else to say about the junta – no survey of Pinochet-related cinema is complete without the works of Larraín’s countryman Patricio Guzman. But it would be hard to avoid the feeling that Larraín himself had said all he needed to on this subject.
As it turns out, there are allusions to Pinochet in The Club, his fourth film, now released for home viewing by Network. Most overtly, one elderly priest speaks vituperatively about the efforts to bring torturers to justice, saying that only God can judge such matters. Rather than being the main subject of the film, this is a metaphor for the film’s true subject matter – the Catholic Church’s attempt to cover up systemic abuse among its priests.
Larraín was inspired to create The Club when he heard of real-life safe houses where abusive priests were hidden away. The enforced cohabitation of his embittered central characters suggests a very dark sitcom, a nightmarish take on Father Ted. It also suggests the Howard Hawks/John Carpenter model of base-under-siege stories, particularly when, less than five minutes in, a fisherman played by Roberto Farías turns up. The fisherman was raped as a child by the house’s newest arrival, and he stands at the gate loudly shouting grisly details of the priest’s crime.
The shocking resolution of this incident brings a new priest, Father García, to the house. As García, Marcelo Alonso brings a smirking, unsettling air to the film, reminiscent of similar mysterious visitors setting themselves up as moral adjudicators in Pasolini’s Theorem or J.B. Priestley’s classic play An Inspector Calls. Larraín’s priests are tough nuts to crack, though, offering a full psychiatric textbook’s worth of denial methods to their interrogator. At one end, Father Vidal has persuaded himself that he was actually removed from his parish for being gay, rather than being a paedophile, a plot strand which is mirrored when Larraín gets into the confused, tormented sexuality of Sandokan, the abused fisherman. On the other end of the scale of wiliness, the elderly Father Ramírez has slipped the trap by way of his senility. He responds to most enquiries with garbled paraphrases of Sandokan’s accusations, making the house echo with the crimes of its inhabitants.
García says he wants to bring a new church, cleansed of the sins of its past. The opening quote from Genesis talks of God separating the light from the darkness, an account of creation and order which, in this context, could refer to something wholly different: the removal of the ‘dark’ paedophile priests from the ‘light’ Church, sweeping them under the carpet at the expense of justice. It’s also echoed in Larraín’s visual style, which is a world away from the day-glo U-Matic video of No. The Club appears to take place in a permanent twilight, with characters shot head-on with lenses so wide they distort the walls, as though the house was collapsing in on its inhabitants. It is a style which offers its characters nowhere to hide, no sunlight to enjoy, no corners to cower in – just an uncompromising, head-on vision. It also brings a deadpan visual humour reminiscent of the work of Yorgos Lanthimos.
Shot in a beach house Larraín owns and using actors – including his wife Antonia Zegers as the housekeeper – he mostly knew, it would be easy to write off The Club as a small side-project the director has snuck in before launching his international career. (Jackie, a biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis starring Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard, just finished filming) But that does a disservice to how thought-through his visual style is, how good the performances are and how strong the script is. For the first two acts, The Club mostly consists of dialogue scenes, and yet they’re all high-wire tension acts. I was slightly uncertain about the final act, feeling that a few scenes veered close to shock tactics in a film which had already proven its power and intensity. The ending, though, is brilliantly pessimistic and worth staying around for. Larraín’s greatest gift is to understand visual style as a moral choice: if the Catholic child abuse scandal was a colour, I have no doubt it would be the queasy, bruise-like lilac that dominates The Club