By Tara Judah
It’s dark inside, but not because there isn’t any light. Something’s wrong, inside the house. The image is grainy and it looks like there’s a sort of fog in the room. I can’t see what I’m supposed to look at clearly. Even when the light does eventually bleed into the room, it hits furniture and faces at all the wrong angles. I have no sense of who these people are and though I’m curious, I am also loath to find out.
From a position of pure cinematic curiosity, I can’t wait for whatever is simmering beneath the surface to boil over. But, having come to expect heartbreaking social and political commentary from director Pablo Larraín, I know that my desire to see a clearer image is part of a cinephilic perversion: it’s not supposed to be easy or enjoyable to watch someone unearth painful, hidden truths.
Larraín’s previous features, a sort of ‘trilogy’ exploring life under Augusto Pinochet; Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012); are the kind of films that stick with you. I don’t think I’ll ever really stop thinking about Tony Manero.
After spending just a couple of hours in El Club, I wonder if I might ever be allowed to leave. The place is a sort of halfway house for discarded clergy who have committed horrific crimes. The men there will never be convicted for what they have done. Instead, they live out their days in a small Chilean seaside village called La Boca. They are not allowed to take part in village life. They are managed and cared for by a pseudo prison warden. A former nun, Sister Monica fetches what they need from town, cooks and cleans for them, and is just as well acquainted with sin.
La Boca is the church’s equivalent of the naughty corner, but the thing about the naughty corner is that you can continue to get up to mischief so long as the righteous keep looking the other way. Illegal greyhound racing, betting and plenty of booze with dinner make the dark days more tolerable: these men may be banished but they are not necessarily repentant.
When a new priest arrives, he unwittingly brings with him the troubled voice of the church’s past. The voice gives rise to a suicide and an internal investigation.
Though the next priest to arrive after him, an internal affairs officer of sorts, is appalled by the crimes the old men have committed, he finds getting to the bottom of what’s happened difficult. Each cover up begets another until, like the bible, it becomes an infinitely interpretative text. And while every piece of information he gleans brings with it a brighter light and clearer image, the haze never lifts entirely. Things will always be foggy in La Boca. These men will never show us their faces in the clear, full light of day. If the divine are to have halos then the one thing we know for sure by the end of El Club is that we are as far from heaven as we could ever be.
Never failing to bring us steadfast lessons of the past and always holding those who hide the truth under lock and key to account, Larraín has created another masterful piece of cinema. And it will haunt us, just like the truth it echoes, for years to come.
Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Roberto Farías, Antonia Zegers, Alfredo Castro, Alejandro Goic, Alejandro Sieveking, Jaime Vadell
Marcelo Alonso,Francisco Reyes,José Soza
Chile 2015, 98 min