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The Club review: an unflinching examination of abuse
October 7, 2015
This strong fifth film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín is an unflinching examination of the influence of the Catholic Church and its role in covering up the many and varied offences of its members.
The Club’s subjects are the residents of a Vatican-funded house in a remote Chilean village, a refuge for priests deemed unfit to serve thanks to crimes ranging from child sex abuse to stealing babies from teen pregnancies to be adopted couples unable to conceive. Overseen by a single nun with her own troubled history, the ageing priests are left to live out their years in peace and quiet – atoning for their sins in a life of quiet comfort.
The grey, windswept shores make for an unforgiving setting, but these priests aren’t much looking for forgiveness anyway. To a man they deny any wrongdoing, rationalising away the injustice of their actions even when directly confronted by its consequences.
Those consequences arrive in the form of Sandokan, a former abuse victim, now homeless and plainly reeling from his corrupted childhood. At once repulsed by and enamoured with his childhood priest, Sandokan is one of the more complex portrayals of the long-term effects of molestation put on screen yet. Catholic ideology and abusive rhetoric are entwined in his psyche, inseparable, his abiding religiosity tying him to his abuse, and thus his abuser.
Larraín is more interested in the personal motivations behind the church’s sins, and its protection of its sinners, than he is in the institutional forces at work. Love for the Church itself is shown to be just as potent a motivation for criminal acts as personal greed or lust are. It’s a bleak look at the prospects for a Church outwardly trying to right old wrongs and bring criminal priests to justice–how can change be brought about when all the old temptations remain, and all the same reasons to hide them from view?
Sergio Armstrong’s stark, sparse cinematography complements the largely restrained performances, Roberto Farías alone bringing raw emotion to his challenging role as Sandokan. Just as he is a disruptive force, threatening the priests’ tranquillity, so do moments of visceral, shocking violence occasionally upset The Club’s sleepy progression, vicious reminders of the extremity of the film’s subject matter.
There’s little joy to be found here, but there is real power, both in the weight of the film’s intellectual arguments and its emotional heft. That’s no better seen than in the fact that despite their transgressions, despite their utter lack of remorse, The Club somehow finds room for sympathy towards these men, who are ultimately the corrupted products of the Church just as much as their own victims are.
Words by Dominic Preston
The Club screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 8th and 9th October.