The Club review – dark drama skewers sinning priests

Chilean director Pablo Larraín exposes guilt and denial in this powerful story about a secret ‘retirement home’ for Catholic clergymen

Pablo Larraín is the Chilean director who has created complex, troubling and oblique movies about a country emerging from denial about the Pinochet era and the lenient way that era was permitted to end. He sees a legacy of unresolved resentment and fear, and his cinema depicts a new kind of birthing pain that might only be fatal.

How much to forgive? How much to forget? In his Post Mortem (2010), a morgue attendant during the 1973 Pinochet coup is asked to anatomise a certain very important body and pressured to come to conclusions favourable to the junta, while in No (2012), Larraín showed an ad exec paradoxically avoiding negativity in the anti-Pinochet “no” campaign during the presidential referendum 15 years later, evidently believing that strident criticisms of Pinochet could be counterproductive, and that it might be impolitic to confront or embarrass all those prosperous Chileans who failed to challenge his reign.

The Club - trailer

The Club – co-written by Larraín with Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos – returns to this idea of guilt and denial, opening up new avenues for it, avenues that always however lead back to politics and history. There is a claustrophobic intensity to the drama, very similar to the airless oppression of Post Mortem, and with the same flavour of a bad dream. But this is an even darker and more uncompromisingly angry movie than the others. It is something to set alongside the masterly documentaries of Chilean film-maker Patricio Guzmán, and perhaps Ariel Dorfman’s 1991 stage play Death and the Maiden.

The setting is bizarrely reminiscent of TV’s Father Ted: a strange seaside “retirement home” for Catholic priests, complete with a protective and faintly sinister mother-hen figure and one very old priest suffering from dementia, who has a dramatically important habit of reciting things that he has heard, like a crazed tape recording. All of these priests have done something wrong, but the church cannot openly condemn them, or throw them out of the priesthood, still less hand them over to the secular authorities. So they sweep them under the carpet in this strange open prison, where they live in a dysfunctional brotherhood of shame.

And of course the wrongdoing is child abuse, the reality of which is addressed brutally and explicitly. The film begins with a shocking confrontation and a shocking stab of violence. But there is a constellation of other sins or quasi-sins around that hideous chief sin: one priest stole newborns from young women he considered unable or unworthy to be mothers, claiming stillbirth and giving them to respectable childless couples in an unofficial adoption scam. Another priest, a former army padre, is considered to be an embarrassment to both church and state for acquiring knowledge of “secret torture houses” in the confessional.

The Club
Rehabilitation via dog racing … The Club. Photograph: film company handout

Child abuse could be a metaphor for political tyranny, or perhaps it is the other way round: and Larraín allows some of his priests to defend paedophilia, eliding it with homosexuality, in a provocative way. Even more bizarrely, the priests and their jailor-nun figure have acquired a hobby: they are training a greyhound, and putting it up for lucrative local races. It is as if all their suppressed sensuality and sin and self-hate has been channelled into this new addictive vice of dog-racing.

Larraín regular Alfredo Castro plays Father Vidal, his intelligent, careworn face set in an expression of weary, venal defiance. Another of Larraín’s repertory players, Antonia Zegers, plays the priests’ housekeeper Monica, who has herself done something that the church must cover up. Marcelo Alonso plays Father Garcia, the church’s special investigator, a new broom sent to the “club” after the violence that opens the movie, with a brief to get to the bottom of what has been going on – and maybe even close the place down. But the prisoner-priests turn out to be good at stonewalling him, and the longer he spends there, the greater the tacit argument to temper justice with mercy and the consequent danger of being seen as subtly complicit in a cover-up.

The Club is a startling and disturbing film in many ways – and replete with ideas. The greyhound racing scenes really are enthrallingly odd: another, more obviously black-comic film might have made these the central point of the drama. In terms of narrative irony, Larraín takes all of these constituent elements as far as they can go, to an end point of pessimism. The flavour of fear and disillusionment is all but overwhelming.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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