This powerful, finely crafted tale of exiled priests seeking redemption on a remote, wind-swept island deserves its own spotlight, says Matthew Hardeman.
Readers who have seen Spotlight, Best Picture winner at this year’s Academy Awards, might feel like they’ve had their fill on the Catholic Church’s scandalous past for the time being. Perhaps the Academy felt the same way when they cruelly (and foolishly) overlooked Pablo Larraín's remarkable new film, The Club, Chile’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Film this year.
Larraín’s fifth offering (his fourth featuring the brilliant, grey-bearded Alfredo Castro) centers around a cadre of wind-lashed ex-priests, hidden away in a secret house on a remote island in southern Chile. Watched over by a mysterious matron of sorts, Mother Monica (played brilliantly by the director’s wife, Antonia Zegers) the group shares a strange obsession with an adopted greyhound which they race at local gatherings.
Little else is immediately clear, though it soon becomes apparent that the house's occupants have transgressed in some fashion - as suggested by the strict regime imposed by zealous gatekeeper of the house: no mobile phones or internet, no ‘self-inflicted’ pleasure, and no venturing into town past the permitted four hours per day, and certainly never as a group. As she repeatedly reminds its restless occupants, this is a ‘house of prayer’.
A new arrival sparks intrigue, suspicion and division among the group, and, in a shocking turn of events (the less said about which here the better), an official envoy of sorts, Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) is sent by the Church to investigate matters and decide the future of the disgraced clergymen and the house, which may or may not be shut down (‘You’re one of those new priests’, Sister Monica says dubiously; a ‘Vatican bureaucrat’ the others chime).
The ensuing escalation in tensions between occupants and those arrayed outside, and perhaps, within the characters themselves, makes for captivating, masterful cinema that shows Latin America’s finest director at his very best. Fortunately, hokey scenes of priests begging their maker for forgiveness, arms outstretched to the sky do not feature.
Visually, The Club is an achievement in itself. Delivered in the Larraín’s trademark understated style, grey hues and single strings cue the sense of foreboding which hangs heavy from the outset while the desolate panoramas and anguished facial close-ups add to the sense of grit. I was reminded at times of Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, similarly focused on an isolated group of clergymen trying to simultaneously plot their survival and ethical limits (albeit amid slightly more noble circumstances).
As you might expect of a film tackling a subject as difficult as this, The Club takes on a mission. But it does so with a dutiful, subtle, detached sort of poise that makes the film’s arc so gripping. Unflinching in its interrogation of the characters, but never binary or vilifying in its approach, the emotional crux is delivered with punch - thanks not least to the superb cast (the lapsing madness of Father Ramirez, played by Alejandro Sieveking, is particularly impressive).
The subject matter hardly makes for easy viewing, but it will inform and reward any fan of artistic and hard-hitting cinema. This is a powerful, beautifully crafted film that needed to be made, and should be seen by all.
THE CLUB directed by Pablo Larraín is now available on DVD #TheClubFilm
THE CLUB - TRAILER