In one of 2015’s most critically acclaimed Chilean dramas “The Club,” director Pablo Larrain presents a chilling and psychologically complex tale of a group of ostracized ministers living together in a secluded waterside Chilean town. Opening today at Landmark Theatres E Street Cinema, the drama won the Jury Grand Prix at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, and was the Chilean entry into the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, though it was not eventually nominated.
The film follows five men and one woman who form a “club,” the elite membership of which no one aspires to obtain. Rather, this club represents a kind of retirement home for spurned priests forced by the Church to serve their penance quietly and out of sight. However, rather than serving their penance, Fr. Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Fr. Ortega (Alejandro Goic), Fr. Silva (Jaime Vadell), senile Fr. Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking) and the dutiful “retired” nun Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers, the director’s wife) live a life of relative comfort and corruption; they drink, watch television and enter their prized greyhound, Rayo, in local races with the purpose of squeezing money out of their fellow villagers.
An early crisis in the film forces the Church’s hand and a Vatican crisis counselor Fr. Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) to pay the house a visit with the presumed intention of shutting it down. A madman named Sandokan (Roberto Farias) has wandered into their village, yelling accusations at the Church, intent on enacting revenge on the priest who abused him as a boy and the Church that covered it up. This crisis proves a rude interruption to the ministers’ clandestine existence, forcing them to confront their past discretions and acknowledge that their ordinations do not relieve them from responsibility. The audience is also forced to confront the reality of this unpleasant subject, which is too often overlooked or ignored.
The pious Garcia is confronted with the difficulty of reconciling his own faith and loyalty to the Vatican with his personal need to help the damaged priests in his care. As the film progresses, we learn of the various past transgressions of the persons in the house, which range from pedophilia to the abduction of bastard babies, and the ways in which the priests attempt to deny or defend these actions. While the general criminality of each minister’s past is well understood, Larrain shows his genius by maintaining the storyline while refusing to disclose the full story, leaving much of the priests’ biographies up to our own imaginations.
Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography scans across seaside landscapes, with the actors illuminated by fuzzy light that reduces them to silhouettes, reflecting the darkness of the biting tale that is to follow. These images of backlit silhouettes against darkening skies, along with the low-key lighting and almost washed-out interior images, create an uncanny, uneasy mood reflective of the themes that permeate the film.
The film could have easily ended on a note of complete despair, void of any hope for forgiveness or redemption. However, while Larrain does not satisfy his audience with a hopeful ending, he still applies a strange and unexpected form of twisted justice in the final scenes by serving an ironic form of punishment on the members of the club. Still, the film leaves the audience emotionally struck.
This stark meditation on faith and religion is marked by Larrain’s focused direction and an exceptional cast. Though different in point of view and style, “The Club” is similar to another acclaimed film from 2015 — awards season frontrunner “Spotlight” — in both subject matter and the depth to which both films explore their themes. Audiences who were intrigued by the story behind “Spotlight” should also consider the more bleak and equally thought-provoking drama that is “The Club.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the film was the Brazilian submission into the Academy Awards.
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