Pablo Larraín’s The Club is a blistering j’accuse leveled directly in the face of the Catholicism. If Larraín’s trilogy of films on the Pinochet regime (“Tony Manero,” “Post Mortem,” and “No”) tended to approach the evils of the dictatorship from the side — via a pathetic “Saturday Night Fever” impersonator or an apolitical ad exec — The Club is a stake straight through the heart of the Catholic Church.
The titular club is a home located in the isolated coastal village of La Boca where the Church has stashed away some disgraced priests. This isn’t clear at first, though; the film opens with evocative instagrammable images of Father Vidal (Larraín’s regular collaborator Alfredo Castro) training a greyhound on a beach. It’s an inauspicious opening that, in typical Larraín fashion, humanizes a despicable, pathetic, and marginal figure. But soon, a new recruit, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza) appears and with him Sandokan (Roberto Farias), a troubled man who shouts explicit accusations of sexual abuse at the home.
Sandokan’s clamorous imputations result in an incident (which I won’t reveal) that brings unwanted attention to the club. And so the Church brings in Father García, a wide-eyed young recruit who treats the club members with righteous contempt, to investigate, leading to a series of interrogations of the priests and Sister Mónica, who serves as a kind of housekeeper. The sins of the Chilean Catholic Church, from more child sex abuse to selling babies to supporting government repression, are put on full display in these interrogation scenes. Even though cinematographer Sergio Armstrong shoots the interrogatees as if through a glass darkly, keeping them hazy and out of focus, their crimes are as clear as day.
But a funny thing happens on the way to condemnation. These men (and woman), who are criminals, who deserve to be in prison, who are unjustly protected by a corrupt international political body wielding enormous power, also come into focus as real people — despicable in so many ways and yet undeniably human. As he did in “Tony Manero,” Larraín pulls off the difficult trick of humanizing his characters through grim humor; the more pathetic they become, the more we identify with and understand them.
Sandokan represents the victims of sex abuse, and he, tragically, like so very many of the abused, is never able to confront his abuser directly. He has become completely twisted by his abuse, livid at the crimes committed against him and yet convinced that he can love (and make love) to a priest only. Similarly, Father Vidal, who admits to some abuse, is also a victim (to a far lesser extent, to be sure) of the Church’s twisted ideology around sex and sexuality.
The Club is Larraín’s most powerful film to date, eschewing the attention-grabbing gimmickry of some of his earlier films in favor of a direct confrontation with human frailty and political power. The club becomes a microcosm of the Church itself, a self-rationalizing, self-protecting little clique of human beings that avow their greater holiness. Larraín may have opted for an aesthetic of fog and gloom, of murky grays and purples, but there is a harsh light of truth beaming through, and the ostensible moral authority of the Catholic Church withers beneath it.