‘The Club’ (‘El Club’): Berlin Review

El Club
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Clothes do not make the monk in Pablo Larrain's grippingly sinister portrait of four very bad Chilean priests

Oscar-nominated director Pablo Larrain (‘No’) unveils his latest in competition at Berlin

In his last three films, Chilean writer-director Pablo Larrain explored the Pinochet regime’s shattering effect on his homeland in ways bizarre (Tony Manero), bleak (Post Mortem) and hopeful (No), yet always with a true touch of originality. Turning his sights this time on the Catholic church – or whatever seems to be left of it in Chile – he offers up a morosely comic and deeply sacrilegious portrait of four priests exiled to the outskirts of their faith, where they lead an existence that's closer to the exploits of the Soprano family than to anything authorized by the Vatican. It’s a surprising and often thought-provoking effort from a filmmaker who has never chosen to take the simple path, confirming Larrain as one of the more genuine talents working in cinema today.

Premiering in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, The Club (El Club), as this film is aptly titled, is definitely not as mainstream as the crowd-pleasing No, which broke out to minor acclaim and was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in 2013. But it should find sufficient takers on the international art house circuit, while drawing further attention to a growing crop of Chilean auteurs that includes Sebastian Lelio (Gloria), Sebastian Silva (Nasty Baby) and fellow Golden Bear contender Patricio Guzman (Nostalgia for the Light).

Set in a dreary seaside town where the sun seems to come out once a day, the story (by Larrain, Guillermo Calderon and Daniel Villalobos) introduces us to four middle-to-old aged men whose main activities seem to be sitting, eating, watching reality TV and betting on a greyhound they train for the local dog races. It’s only after a few scenes that we realize they are all in fact priests, though they never pray, confess, go to church or do anything remotely religious beyond drinking red wine.

Under the care of the tolerant Mother Monica (Antonia Zegers), Fathers Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Silva (Jaime Vadell), Ortega (Alejandro Goic) and Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking) live together in what appears to be one extremely chill monastery, although that all changes when a new priest, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza), shows up to join them, bringing with him some troubling baggage: a raving drifter, Sandokan (Roberto Farias), who accuses the Father of sexually molesting him.

No sooner does Sandokan make a spectacle of Lazcano’s exploits, shouting profanities filled with disturbingly graphic details, then the priest takes a gun and blows his brains out. The incident causes the church to send in Father Garcia (Marcel Alonso), a young do-gooder hired to flush these men from their immoral hiding places and close the house of worship – if you can call it that – for good.

But like the fifth wheel on an already misaligned jalopy, Garcia fails to steer his fellow priests in the right direction, even if he coerces them into confessing to an array of sins that range from (yet more) pedophilia to political corruption to selling babies under the noses of their mothers. These men are about as holy as Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and they could care less about God or the Pope, profiting from their priestly status so they can engage in petty rackets and otherwise be left alone.

It’s a damning portrait of a religious order that exiles its more offensive elements in order to save face, yet does nothing for its many victims of abuse – including the crazy but truth-talking Sandokan, who represents a sort of holy fool. Indeed, Larrain soon reveals that only the rape victim and Father Garcia retain any semblance of belief, while the others have given up the ghost long ago, lounging around their beachfront home like Tony, Silvio, Paulie and Christopher in front of Satriale’s Pork Store.

Filled with snippets of pitch-black humor early on, the narrative heads to even bleaker places when it becomes clear that neither Sandokan nor Garcia will give up their quests for the truth, forcing the priests to take action. Yet as in his previous works, Larrain builds to a conclusion that’s far from predictable, bringing notions of faith back into the picture while asking us to question what being a good Catholic really means: going to church or helping your fellow man (whether you like it or not).

With several Larrain regulars comprising the cast, the performances are nuanced and constantly shifting, and we never quite know what kind of people we’re dealing with. Everyone seems to have something up his or her sleeve, especially the dog-loving Father Vidal, who Castro plays as a quiet man brimming with both pride and self-loathing, delivering one of the film’s more powerful lines when he calmly calls Mother Monica a “motherfucker” and doesn’t bother to follow it up with a few Hail Marys.

Capturing the antics in washed-out, backlit images that add to the hopelessness, DP Sergio Armstrong reveals a grim world bathed in shadow and fog – something like a Chilean version of the bitter town in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, and one with a much less breathtaking coast than the village in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. The soundtrack includes haunting pieces by minimalist composer Arvo Part – perfect club music for such unholy rituals.

Production company: Fabula
Cast: Alfredo Castro, Roberto Farias, Antonia Zegers, Jaime Vadell, Alejandro Goic, Alejandro Sieveking, Marcelo Alonso, Jose Soza, Francisco Reyes
Director: Pablo Larrain
Screenwriters: Guillermo Calderon, Daniel Villalobos, Pablo Larrain
Producer: Juan de Dios Larrain
Executive producers: Rocio Jadue, Juan Ignacio Correa, Mariane Hartard
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Estefania Larrain
Costume designer: Estefania Larrain
Editor: Sebastian Sepulveda
Sales agent: Funny Balloons

No rating, 98 minutes