Film of the week: The Club

Pablo Larraín’s festering drama imagines the limbo on earth in which the Catholic Church hides its priests of ill-repute.

► Watch the opening five minutes of The Club.


from our April 2016 issue

The Club (2015)

When you think what the British admen of the 1960s and 1970s brought to the cinema when they began making feature films, their Chilean equivalent Pablo Larraín looks like some kind of master. The Club is an intensely serious drama about the fallout from the paedophile-priest scandals that have destroyed so much faith in the Catholic Church worldwide. The script is entirely fictional, but Larraín stresses that secret house-prisons for delinquent priests like the one shown in the film do exist, in Chile and elsewhere. What disturbs him most is that the Church cares less for its victims than about saving face and concealing scandal – in a word, safeguarding its own ‘infallibility’, the issue at the core of the film.

The title is sardonic. This ‘club’ is not formally constituted and has few rules. Its members are Catholic priests who have been caught sexually abusing young boys. Rather than defrocking them or allowing them to go to trial, the Church has whisked them out of sight to an anonymous house in a remote seaside town, in effect an open prison which they can leave only for a few hours in the early morning and early evening.

This cloistered enclave is disrupted twice, first by the arrival of new ‘inmate’ Father Lazcano, who kills himself on his first day there, and then by the arrival of earnest young priest Garcia, who is ostensibly investigating the suicide but has actually been charged with finding a way to close the place down. The figure who proves central to both disruptions is Sandokan, a mentally unstable man who was sexually abused by Lazcano many years earlier and has followed him from place to place ever since.

Sandokan is central because he’s an embarrassing paradox: a victim whose graphic descriptions of what Lazcano did to him can expose what the house is and why the priests have been secluded there, but also a believer in the Church’s dogma about the sanctity of its priests. Sandokan considers himself touched by God, since whatever a priest emits is by definition holy. (He has occasional sex with women prostitutes, but considers that “dirty”.)

The Club (2015)

Sandokan was in fact destroyed by being sodomised as a boy; he lives in misery and chaos, sustained by massive daily doses of tranquillisers, painkillers and uppers. His pursuit of the priest who violated him (this is what provokes Lazcano’s suicide) is a quest for the ‘purity’ that has been missing all his adult life. Garcia’s ultra-pragmatic solution to the problem of the house – of course, it’s the house’s very existence that is the fundamental problem – is to put Sandokan in charge, creating a perfect huis clos that will damn everyone in it to lifelong torment.

As an account of what the Church will do to protect itself, the film should ideally be double-billed with Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary Mea Maxima Culpa (2012), which explores the heretical belief that an ordained man becomes intrinsically holy. Father Garcia, the Church’s fixer, who may or may not be gay himself but has clearly held to his vow of celibacy, is in turn bemused, horrified and baffled by what he hears in the house. Larraín constructs two quite lengthy montage sequences from his sessions questioning the four priests, building not only a picture of their denials and self-delusions but also something more insidious: when the senile Father Ramirez, the oldest ‘inmate’, begins repeating the words he heard from Sandokan about how hard it is for a small boy to fellate a grown man, Garcia wonders aloud if he’s describing a fantasy.

The Club (2015)

But it’s not the absence of penitence that ultimately pushes Garcia into extremist action. Only when the warden Sister Monica (herself compromised by a history of beating the African child she adopted) threatens to go to the press does Garcia come up with the berserk idea of killing all the town’s greyhounds, simply to snatch away the pleasure the priests take in dog-racing. Buñuel would have understood.

On this evidence, nobody is likely to hail Larraín as a great visual stylist. His Scope compositions are unadventurous and his film language and editing syntax are fundamentally orthodox. The climactic crosscutting between two acts of violence seems to spring from an impulse to produce a ‘punchy’ finale; all it actually brings to the film is a redundant hint of melodrama. But The Club is written and acted with great skill and remarkable sensitivity to the warped thought processes of paedophiles and their victims. Catholics are not its only audience. 


In the April 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

Pablo Larraín discusses The Club’s compassionate, claustrophobic study of human frailty, and its grainy moral and celluloid gloom, with Mar Diestro-Dópido.


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