If Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s latest feature, The Club, is any indication, the relatively straightforward nature of his last film, No, was only temporary. The gleeful perversity of his previous two features, 2008’s Tony Manero and 2010’s Post Mortem, is back in his new film, and so is a welcome maturity to his misanthropy that lends an unexpected moral weight to the coal-black comedy.
The film’s titular “club,” we soon discover, is a group of banished Catholic priests living in a yellow house in a small Chilean coastal town. Actually, their existence is more akin to imprisonment than anything else: Looked over by a nun named Monica (Antonia Zegers), none of these priests are allowed to make any contact with the outside world beyond the occasional dog race featuring Father Vidal’s (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro) precious greyhound (and even then, they have to observe the races from afar, with binoculars). Their imposed-from-above purgatorial bubble, however, is burst when Sandokan (Roberto Farías), the self-proclaimed victim of a new entrant into their ranks, Father Lazcano (José Soza), hassles the group outside their window, to the point that a guilt-ridden, panicky Lazcano commits suicide in front of his victim. Further complications ensue when well-meaning Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) enters the scene, intent not only getting to the bottom of the incident, but also exorcising these priests’ demons and thus shutting down this group for good.
This setup suggests a topical takedown of both corruption in the priesthood and the ruthless ways Catholic churches have tried, over the course of decades in some cases, to cover up their immoral behavior. As ever with Larraín, however, his targets are much broader. For one thing, Sandokan, it turns out, is hardly a simple victim himself: He has been so corrupted by his sexual abuse as a child that, as a troubled adult, he now believes he can only find true love with a priest. And then there’s Father Garcia, who, the longer he investigates these priests and gets to know them, gradually finds his own sense of good and evil challenged.
Larraín can usually be counted on to find a fairly novel visual style to tell his story, and while Sergio Armstrong’s 2:35:1 cinematography in The Club doesn’t quite draw attention the same ways, say, Post Mortem’s super-wide 2.66:1 cinematography and No’s 1.33:1 videotape photography did, Armstrong’s dim lighting of interiors and general use of soft focus throughout are worth noting, especially in contrast to the occasional bold colors in wide landscape shots of the sky—as if visually indicating a higher intelligence just beyond these characters’ individual and collective reach. The most striking thing about The Club in the end, though, is the way Larraín’s anger toward the self-interested corruption of the Catholic church is, to some extent, enriched by its clear-eyed, if occasionally grimly amusing, grasp of the complexities of human nature. Thankfully, we’re far from the jokey facile metaphors of Tony Manero and Post Mortem; there’s a twisted empathy underneath the misanthropic black humor of The Club that cannot be so easily dismissed.
Berlinale runs from February 5—15.