Behind the closed doors of the house on the hill lie many secrets. Enveloped in heavy fog, perched above a raging sea, the past sins of four men remain shrouded in mystery. In The Club, Pablo Larraín dives headlong into an evil that Catholicism has long attempted to sweep under the carpet. A physical and emotional assault on the senses, sensibilities and conscience, the Chilean director has crafted a chilling, unflinching indictment of church sponsored cover-ups of widespread child abuse. Painful in both its moral ambiguity and subject matter, The Club is a brave, profoundly unsettling piece of filmmaking.
Purposefully hidden away from the world in a sleepy coastal village, a group of disgraced former priests live a sheltered existence under the watchful eye of Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers). Committed to penance and prayer to atone for their sins, they are nonetheless allowed to drink, watch television and race a stray greyhound on whom bets are placed, and won. So, how strict is their punishment? A new addition upsets the apple cart by trailing a manifestation of long-suppressed memories in his wake. Sandokan (Roberto Farías), an ogre-like brute of a man who bears the trauma of childhood abuse like a cross – indeed he wears a crucifix earring – is an embodiment of the horrific scars left by the clergymen’s evil abuse of trust. An excruciating, unfiltered account of ills suffered is hurled at a building that stands as both a sanctuary and prison whose walls begin to close in. Sandokan’s presence looms large over an ever-spiraling descent into the heart of darkness.
The arrival of Padre Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), a bureaucrat, prompts interviews to investigate the goings on. During these exchanges cinematographer Sergio Armstrong – who also worked with Larraín on Tony Montero and No – places his camera front on. There is no direct address but in choosing this adversarial positioning he also places a viewer under scrutiny. This is not necessarily to plough any wrongdoing on our part but certainly questions complicity, guilt of being involved in the cover up. Elsewhere, the frequently misty haze that falls across the lens, dull colour palette and mournful, at times discordant, score reinforce the haunting, unnerving air of menace that pervades every moment.
One of The Club‘s many assets lies in its subtlety and suggestion. The simplest of gestures, which in almost any other context could be seen as a tender one, is devastating. Is it the God-fearing men who are to be feared, or the institution itself? The slow reveal of information is a painstaking slide into purgatory where we are simultaneously disgusted and enthralled, repulsed and captivated like moths to a flame. The Club opens with a verse from Genesis: ‘God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.’ Pablo Larraín makes no such separation of wheat from chaff and as we lurch towards a devilishly open-ended conclusion a viewer will have as many questions as answers.
The Club, directed by Pablo Larraín, is in UK cinemas 25 March. #TheClubFilm
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens