Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 03, 2016 12:44 pm 
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"The church washes its hands and we're left behind as scapegoats"

After the bright and cheery tale of an advertising campaign that started the downfall of the Chilean dictator, No, starring the charismatic Gael García Bernal, Pablo Larraín has gone back to the grim tenor of his previous two films with a vengeance, in fact done something in its way even creepier. What could be worse than a narcissistic murderer and a spineless coroner? How about pedophile priests living in the ambiguous confinement of a low profile seaside safe house? That is the subject of the euphemistically named The Club. Everything about this movie is designed to make you uneasy, indeed, to make you want to flee. To start with, the disquieting irrelevance of the disreputable ecclesiastical group's entering a racing greyhound in local competitions. For them it's a kind of cover; certainly an odd kind of penance. Anyhow they do it surreptitiously, watching the races through binoculars, otherwise staying aloof from the locals.

Things change when a mentally deranged or disabled new priest, Padre Lazcano (Jose Soza) arrives pursued by a feeble-minded young adult, a kind of village idiot, Sandokan (Roberto Farias), a fisherman, it turns out, in the local town of La Boca, who was one of Lazcano's victims, who shouts accusations, leading him to an extreme act. Also present is a lone woman, Suora Monica (played by Larraín's wife, Antonia Zeggers), who thinks she's on hand to maintain order and care for the senile priest Padre Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking), but is really an incomprehensibly cheerful defrocked nun, with her own dark history of baby snatching from unwed mothers and strange ideas. Afrter the Sandokan incident there arrives a tall priest with demonic eyes, Padre Garcia (Marcelo Alonso). He is a crisis manager dispatched by the Church. His job is to interrogate the group one by one with a view to disbanding this setup and finding out what the hell has been going on, or perhaps just setting things in order. We don't know. And though he objects, understandably, to the dog racing, he turns up to watch it, with the others, without objection. Is he joining in?

The setting is as bland and ordinary as it is disquieting and claustrophobic; the first shots are just of dog-training on a sunset beach, and tranquil dinners. Tony Romero and to some extent Post Mortem reveled in an uncomfortable grayness, and here some images even seem blurred by seaside fog. This time Larraín adds odd juxtapositions in the editing. We see Padre Vidao (Alfredo Castro), the observer who spies the greyhound through binoculars, watching Sandokan, the damaged, abused man helping fishermen, and we jump-cut to everyone chanting a hymn in the living room. Then back to Padre Vidal marching along the beach and listening with a creepily complicit smile to three surfers telling an off color anecdote in his presence. Then, suddenly, to another dog race. It's repeatedly disorienting and cramped the way Larraín shoots the interrogations, alternating closeup shots that jump back and forth abruptly and without logic from one interlocutor to another. This is, in a way, just exposition of the issues of ecclesiastical corruption, which the irregular cutting jazzes up. The disheveled Sandokan waders in and out of the camera's vision. Its lens spies on him as he turns on a local woman with his obsessive, aggressive, sexual talk about homosexuals. But then he cannot satisfy her because his own sexuality has been so warped by his abusers. Thus from different angles Larraín explores the toll of priestly pedophilia within the same unnatural confined place.

The Club's US release comes in February, in movie dead time and a gray time of year, and if you're suffering from winter doldrums, you'd best avoid it. But in another way, it comes at a good moment because one of the best releases of 2015 is still fresh in our minds: Todd McCarthy's Spotlight, about the Boston Globe's landmark investigation of this same subject. But while McCarthy properly focuses on the reporters, and the evils they're ferreting out are only referred to indirectly, he's prim in his failure to get close to the ugliness. Larraín has found the unease he is so good at, without actually showing children being abused. Larraín is more interested in how corruption lingers and spreads. And, of course, this is about the Catholic Church's dodges and coverups and the self-deception and madness they lead to and involve.

The Club is largely a mood piece, with the overtones and atmosphere of a horror movie, without much plot. The director's 2008 Tony Manero and his 2010 Post Morten, which both, more prominently and to greater effect, featured his malignant muse Alfredo Castro (present here too) in the central role, were mood pieces too. But their mood was more anchored in political malaise, the tragic last days of Salvador Allende and the suffocating domination and final downfall of the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. The Club, with its setting in an artificial ménage far from the capital, is not so clearly anchored, and feels like it's just playing with its cast of characters -- and its audience.

Perhaps what Scott Foundas says in his Variety review is right and this is a "stunning allegory for the abuses of the catholic church." They were impressed by The Club at the 2015 Berlinale, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. But the Catholic church is too good a show in itself to need much allegorizing. Larraín's skills at manipulating torpid, creepy moods appear to have grown a little rusty since Post Mortem. In the light of its momentous subject, the concluding, more violent parts of this movie feel lame and repetitious, making it in the end not quite the worthy companion piece after all for the rigorous and thrilling Spotlight. Pablo Larraín has done better, and will do better again.

The Clulb/El Club, 98 mins., debuted at Berlin, 9 Feb. 2015, winning the German Silver Bear; over two dozen other international festivals, some awards and many nominations and swept the Mexico City Iberian-American awards. It came out 18 Nov. 2015 in France but did not meat with the éclat No received (3.6 press on AlloCiné vs. 4.1). It releases to theaters (distributed by Music Box) Friday, 5 Feb. 2015 in the US (NYC), 19 Feb. in San Francisco (Landmark), coming to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, San Diego, Minneapolis and other cities.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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