The Club is a Chilean drama film directed by Pablo Larrain that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and was selected as Chile’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards (it ultimately wasn’t nominated).
So here’s the premise: four ‘retired’ Catholic priests, unable to fulfil their duties any longer due to past sins and transgressions, live together in a secluded house in a small beach town somewhere on the Chilean coast. A female ‘caretaker’ keeps track of their schedule and ensures they stick to it to help with their penance; including set prayer sessions in the morning, scheduled meal times, rules regarding how long they’re allowed to venture outside and how much free time they’re allotted. This rigid structure seems to be going along quite nicely until the arrival of a fifth priest, soon revealed to have been sent there for the kind of crime Catholic priests have become infamous for, whose presence sets off a course of events that have drastic effects not only on the dynamic of the house, but the entire surrounding town as well.
There’s a tongue in cheek element to certain parts of the film, and its occasional injection of humour into the otherwise uneasy atmosphere is a welcome addition. In particular, some of the most memorable moments ensue during a series of ‘interviews’ held mid-way through, during which each character is questioned as the truth is sought regarding an incident that occurs not long into the movie. Fearing their housing arrangement – with which they had become rather comfortable – is now in danger of being taken from them, the characters proceed to cover up the real truth about what happened.
The irony of the situation – this being a group of already disgraced priests covering up the truth to protect their current living arrangements from outside influences – isn’t lost on me, nor should it be on you if you’re to appreciate what this movie does. If it wasn’t for the film’s sardonic approach to scenes like this, the experience would no doubt feel more depressing than it ends up being – and what it ends up being, is actually pretty damn entertaining.
Underneath the film’s gentle attitude and sense of humour is a more serious tone. It should come as little surprise at this point that the whole thing is a not-so-thinly veiled critique of the more distasteful side to Catholicism – there is one line of dialogue later in the movie that sums up its conclusion. The same character who is introduced to interrogate the former priests (a younger man who the older retirees refer to as the ‘new generation’) admits the one thing he would like to see happen is for these men to go to prison. But he won’t turn them in. Why? Because, in his own words, he “doesn’t want to harm the image of the church”. And that pretty much sums up where the problems began – not only in this case, but in many cases where an organisation believes itself higher than the law, preferring to deal with things internally to protect its own image. The Club, by offering this enclosed scenario as its primary setting, magnifies this problem and does it without ever getting too downbeat or preachy with its message.
This film isn’t, in the end, overly concerned with justice or integrity in the same way that Best Picture winner Spotlight was. In the way it tackles Catholicism’s issues it’s more like the candid little brother, shunned for its crudeness. It’s not afraid to show the tough scenes, make you uncomfortable as you hear some of the dialogue, and do it all with a sly grin.
Yet it’s also a strangely intimate and emotional movie. There’s no propaganda here; no attempts to pull the wool over one’s eyes aside from the scarcely believable cover-up attempts of the priests during their interrogation. Personally I found it to be one of the more honest and down to earth films of the past few years. For a movie experience that at times borders on (if not falls outright into) satire, that’s certainly a mark of its success.
9 / 10