Pablo Larraín on The Club you don't want to join

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 01 Mar 2016

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín continues to scratch at his nation's dark past with fifth feature The Club, a chilling study of guilt and punishment following four defrocked priests exiled to a windswept coastal purgatory

“The Church thinks that it can only be judged by the eyes of God, not in a courtroom,” Pablo Larraín says in an even tone as he sips coffee in a London bar. The Chilean filmmaker makes the same point much more forcefully in his extraordinary new film, The Club, a caustic and chilling indictment of the culture of concealment in the Catholic Church. The film’s setup recalls Father Ted: four priests and their stickler housekeeper live out an oddball cohabitation in a canary yellow house in an overcast coastal village. But cosy clergy sitcom this is not.

The 39-year-old Larraín, best known for a loose trilogy of films (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No) that picked at the scab of his country’s military dictatorship, won the Silver Bear award for The Club at last year’s Berlin Film Festival and he's speaking to us on a warm October morning in Covent Garden ahead of the film’s screening at London Film Festival. It all began, he says, when he came across an incongruous photograph. “I don’t know if it was on the internet or in the newspaper, but it was a picture of a very beautiful house where a German congregation holds priests like these ones. One of the priests there was Chilean, called Cox, and he was accused of child abuse, but before he was grabbed by the justice he left to live in this house.” Dressed all in black with a neat beard, this is the one moment in the interview where Larraín is compelled to sit bolt upright from the armchair he’s lounging in. “It was incredible! It was all green fields and mountains. It looked like it was a Swiss chocolate commercial or something. I started wondering about this house...”

“Cinema is very good at mystery”

In The Club, Larraín’s protagonists have also been posted to a rural congregation and swept under the rug. But it takes a while for us to understand why these clergymen have ended up in their secluded purgatory. “Cinema is very good at mystery,” he says, “and I think it’s essential to deliver the information in a certain way, to build it so that you want to know what’s going on.”

Those unfamiliar with this filmmaker’s penchant for putting grim crimes of the Chilean state under a microscope might initially think they’ve stumbled into a geezer comedy as we see these strange little men take constitutionals on the beach and train their greyhound for local dog races. What are these quaint old fogies doing at a “centre of prayer and penance”? This slow burn adds to Larraín’s themes. “It’s confusing, because you get the impression that these guys don’t even know what they’ve done; they don’t understand why their behaviour was so harmful; they’re in denial.”

The sins of their past come into sharp focus when a new priest joins the club, and brings with him some unwanted attention. One of his victims, a weather-beaten fisherman named Sandokan (Roberto Farias), pitches up outside the priests’ neat little home and declares at the top of his lungs and in pornographic detail the various sexual abuses meted out to him as a child by the new arrival. It’s an extraordinary scene, part protest, part confessional.

If you felt that the similarly themed Oscar hopeful Spotlight was too coy in its depiction of institutionalised child molestation, The Club is its antidote, and brings viewers uncomfortably close to these criminals and their crimes.

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“What’s interesting is that when Sandokan describes what happened to him, the audience has to complete those images in their heads,” says Larraín, “and those images are often way more dangerous or violent than what I could shoot. I try to create a tone and a story that needs an active audience: they have to use their own biography and their own ethical and moral perceptions to represent the movie, and that’s interesting, but you’re creating these horrible images in your own mind and that’s fucking dangerous.”

In the last decade or so, the scandal of child abuse inside the Catholic Church has flooded the press and lapped embarrassingly around the feet of the religion’s high command, who in the past have simply denied the charges and paid off the victims. The recent watershed of exposure, says Larraín, has been because of a change in our attitude towards victims. “Back in the day, you wouldn’t speak because you didn’t want to be that guy – not just because of the experience but because of the way people would look at you,” he suggests. “Today, there is respect for these people for speaking up and there’s more protection.” The key, however, has been the media’s response. “I think what happens here is that the Church have more fear for the media than they do for hell. It’s a new paradigm.”

Dark humour in Pablo Larraín's work

The central section of The Club concerns an investigation by a Church emissary, Father García (Marcelo Alonso), into the goings-on in the house, and the residents’ resistance to any suggestion of wrongdoing for their crimes, which are revealed to be myriad, from pederasty to selling bastard children on the black market to Larraín’s favourite subject: complicity with Pinochet’s regime. If this all sounds too grim, what makes it palatable is Larraín’s deft marshalling of tone, creating an atmosphere that’s clammy, unnerving, quietly compassionate and darkly funny. The latter is a quality that runs through all of Larraín’s work; his signature touch. “There are some ideas that you can’t say with a straight face because you can sound preachy,” he suggests. “It’s as if you’re trying to make a statement instead of telling a story. Humour is the best tool to hide something that can be interesting and smart and it can maybe be even more sophisticated if you can put it in a joke.”

Humour is also another way by which Larraín wakes us from our complacency. “It can be threatening for the audience when they realise they are laughing about something that they shouldn't be laughing at,” he says. “It’s a moral conflict inside any of us if we laugh at something that maybe we shouldn’t and when that happens, it’s amazing.” For Larraín, this phenomenon is key to cinema’s future: “If you watch the movie alone, maybe you wouldn’t laugh that much, but in a cinema, it’s an electric thing. It’s why cinema will never be replaced.”

The Club is released across the UK on 25 Mar by Network Films

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