“Has it ever occurred to you that you’re a criminal?”
This is a film about deafening silence and how one unexpected intrusion can turn the normalcy of its sequestered solitude on its head. It’s a silence we have seen before a couple months ago in Spotlight—there too it was extracted from secret penance to the penal system of public consciousness. Pablo Larraín‘s vision is on a much smaller scale although the ramifications are just as brutally blunt and far-reaching. For him the issue wasn’t exposing the crimes of Catholic priests as much as bringing to light a way in which those crimes had been covered up. It wasn’t a matter of separating the good still giving sermons or bad facing sentences in jail. His mission was to find those who were disappeared without a trace.
Thusly he and cowriters Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos craft their story of lost souls hidden away in remote villages around the world. Sticking to the themes of his previous films—all of which exist against a backdrop of crucial moments from Chilean history—his El Club [The Club] also takes place in his homeland. The issue at hand’s connection to Chile is because it’s an international topic, though, so don’t expect a specific reason for the setting other than not pretending his nation didn’t play its own part in the carefully cultivated silence. Through back-channel research culled from clergy aware of the process, the filmmakers drew four disgraced priests and a nun each of whom pays for his/her transgressions in an exile of schedules, prayer, and restraint.
And at the beginning it appears all is well. If you didn’t know going in that the inhabitants were disrobed church members you’d believe them merely a group of retirees basking in the quiet of a seaside town’s anonymity. Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro) plays with his greyhound Rayo in the sand as Fathers Silva (Jaime Vadell), Ortega (Alejandro Goic), and Ramírez (Alejandro Sieveking) go about their business on the beach or within their yellow-sided home kept-up by Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers). They race Rayo against local dogs for fun, reaping the rewards of Vidal’s training to stay solvent and full. Is it spiritual to gamble? No. But their actions are harmless exploits of old men with little else to do. It keeps them happy and no one complains.
Well, no one complains until the arrival of a new boarder (José Soza‘s Father Lazcano) changes everything. The shift is so abrupt and so catastrophic that you must wonder how long the others had resided there in peace. How long had they followed Sister Mónica’s rules of zero contact with anyone outside of themselves, regular prayer, and a ban on self-pleasure? How long had they been left abandoned by a church too afraid to publically admit what they had done, alone without retribution or punishment so as to manufacture excuses for their deeds and reasons to believe they had done nothing wrong? They couldn’t have transgressed if no one came to put them on trial. Their pasts were just that—the past. The present was a different world.
Lazcano and Father García (Marcelo Alonso)—a younger spiritual director entering the story shortly after in response to unspeakable tragedy with the sole goal to shut the house and all other houses like it down for good—bring that former life back with full force. And it couldn’t happen soon enough for us in the audience as we began to sympathize with them, in the dark as to why they’ve been sequestered together. Suddenly the wails of a man victimized in his youth (Roberto Farías‘ Sandokan) shatter their odd yet idyllic existences as those forgotten or “accepted” pasts come flooding back. García seeks to confront them with their crimes, to manipulate them into confessions and ultimately throw them away like he believes should have been done decades earlier.
What’s intriguing is how despite knowing these men are the “bad guys” in this scenario, Larraín finds a way to keep them as heroes of sorts. The voice of justice García is purposefully antagonistic because it should be, but his being the outsider makes us fear him much like the others do. Exile isn’t punishment enough and yet the opening scenes prove the Fathers aren’t harming anyone anymore. This “retreat” has worked and if not for the Vatican opening old wounds no one would have been the wiser. I’m not condoning this sense of reasoning, but rather stating how it could look if you forget about the victims who’ve had their lives forever altered at their hands. God preaches forgiveness and perhaps these men have earned theirs.
To hear them speak only corroborates such sentiment because they have their excuses and reasons at the ready whether truth or lies repeated over and over again until they feel as though they are. Each possesses a tale of misdirected rage, entrapment, and exterior hate imagining crimes around them. Maybe Vidal did what he’s accused of or maybe a Bishop twisted his words into a confession instead. Maybe Mónica was abusive or maybe those around her lied to assuage their own bigotry. Maybe Silva had just cause to remain quiet as was his duty as a man of the cloth—the title of accomplice misconstrued and fashioned to turn him into a scapegoat. And, well, Ortega was a criminal. Acting with pure intent doesn’t absolve his guilt.
The question becomes why the church can allow their versions stand as truth outside the law. Here’s where the film’s idea of impunity comes in and how willing we are as a community to blindly let it occur. Until the past couple decades the church could do no wrong. They literally killed in God’s name for centuries and parishioners continue to flock every Sunday so a corrupt system can cleanse them of their own corruptness. If it’s good enough for us why shouldn’t it be for them? Suddenly we’re at a crossroads between church and state, morality and justice, absolution and penalty. We believe these people have remorse so we hate García. He proves they are merely full of ego and righteousness and we eventually hate them all.
And with brilliant storytelling construction, Larraín ensures we never enter a courtroom. He lets karmic retribution settle scores in a way that opens García’s eyes as much as our own. The vicious self-preservation on display during The Club‘s climax cannot be described as anything but pitch-black sociopathic rage hidden beneath blank faces insanely justifying their heinousness. Mankind’s darkness is unleashed by all—the outside world’s bile permeating the no longer hermetically sealed bubble of the priests’ retreat, possessing them to return to past selves that have risen once more. The world creates its monsters, feeding them until not even God can intervene. Perhaps we’re all best protected if these specific versions of evil acting in the Lord’s name are forgotten. Acknowledging them again may be worse.
 Father Silva (Jaime Vadell), Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), and Father Ramírez (Alejandro Sieveking) in THE CLUB. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
 Still from THE CLUB. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
 Father Ramírez (Alejandro Sieveking), Father García (Marcelo Alonso), Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers), Father Silva (Jaime Vadell) and Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic). Courtesy of Music Box Films.