The Club Dir. Pablo Larraín

[Music Box Films; 2015]

Styles: drama, psychological thriller
Others: The Tribe

The Club, Pablo Larraín’s fifth feature, places the overwhelming majority of its action in and around a small house in an unremarkable seaside town. The image of the yellow, rectangular structure atop a small hill that appears throughout the film is suggestive both of the physical and social seclusion of those inside and their regimented manner of day-to-day living. Those inhabitants are four excommunicated Catholic priests and a nun who was also kicked out of her convent. The transgressions that caused their respective banishments include child abuse and kidnapping, revealed when they are individually interviewed by a counselor, Father García (Marcelo Alonso), sent by the church to determine if the house should remain in operation or be shut down. The counselor’s visit is due to an incident involving the suicide of a newly disgraced priest. The priest kills himself soon after his initial arrival when his presence attracts one of the nearby members of the town, who proceeds to loudly recount — in the backyard of the priests’ house — this new priest’s abuse of him as a child in gruesome detail. It’s immediately clear that the possibility of confronting their possibly criminal pasts is deeply unsettling for these priests.

What’s also clear is that their heavily structured lifestyle serves a dual purpose for the priests of providing an escape from the reality of the infractions that brought them there as well as a means of convincing themselves they’ve been rehabilitated. When the counselor asks them questions concerning their current state, they often mention the responsibility they’ve taken on in the house (and in training a dog for local competitive races) as evidence of how much they’ve improved since their excommunication. It’s not lost on Father García, however, that they’ve largely managed to evade that responsibility so essential to Christianity: repentance. It’s this very responsibility that he strains to get them to take on for much of the film.

Just how difficult this task proves to be shows how these priests have chosen to repress their past sins rather than confess and repent for them. Even though their surroundings are directly related to the specific things in their past which led them to be excommunicated — the house is described as a “retreat” for the priests by Mother Mónica (Antonia Zegers), a place where the priests can reflect upon and, ostensibly, overcome whatever it is that made them perform their prior transgression — they still manage collectively to ignore them. Their failure to repent — by definition to genuinely show remorse and regret for a wrongdoing — suggests all too grimly that they are not remorseful for what they’ve done, content to banish the memory of their sins (and with them, their underlying, taboo drives) to the recesses of their mind, rather than address and morally atone for them.

This theme more or less allows for one of the film’s most compelling conceits — the presentation of piousness as a performance. After the suicide that incites the investigation, Mother Mónica speaks to the police inexplicably dressed in her nun outfit, which is never to be seen again for the film’s duration. The priests essentially put on a performance of being “cured” when García initially interviews them. If only Larraín did something with this conceit instead of repeating it constantly without much change or development. The script practically exhausts this motif’s thematic power in the first few scenes, which clearly reveal their strictly regimented lifestyle as a performance enacted to reflexively convince the members of the house that they’ve been cured. Larraín later on develops García’s character as an unconvincing metaphor for the Catholic church (as though the house’s original members wouldn’t be sufficient in this regard), and places him in staunch opposition to the priests. He brings into the house a dose of good old Christian asceticism, banning alcohol and, interestingly, both self-flagellation and masturbation, then attempts to get rid of the dog — positing it as an Augustinian distraction from the task at hand (rehabilitation) — which ignites fervent defiance from Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro), the dog’s most passionate caretaker. This choice promises effortlessly dramatic scenes, but muddles the thematic content the film has developed up to this point. The aggressive opposition between García and the priests marks the script’s settling into a much more conventional dramatic setup which documents the church trying to forcefully solve its own institutional problems. This all brings a climax including violent loss and which leads to a reversal (some have said “retribution”) that makes no narrative sense whatsoever.

The Club sets up some truly fascinating ideas in the beginning, only to obfuscate and complicate them needlessly in the second half. The film’s chief visual device — the images in most every shot appear cloudy, almost willfully obscured; a stylistic choice which doesn’t add nearly enough to justify how long it takes to get used to — seems to mirror this, which may lead one to believe that the sometimes bewildering thematic and visual complications are precisely Larraín’s point with The Club. That, or the film ditches the thematic exploration it begins in favor of easier, though less thoughtful, dramaturgy.

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