Friday, June 17, 2016

GLASS HOUSES
On Pablo Larraín's The Club

The last 15 minutes of Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s 2010 film Post Mortem are a harrowing test of endurance for the viewer, one that confronts head on the evil that men do and its apparent justification. And while that film, like Mr Larraín’s international breakthrough Tony Manero and its lighter follow-up No, dealt primarily and directly with the history of Chile under the Pinochet regime, its suffocating, relentless claustrophobia carries on intact into the modern-day setting of The Club.

An expertly, disquietingly modulated ensemble piece set during a few days in a remote cottage by the Chilean coast, Mr Larraín’s fifth feature is a pin-prick sharp, none-more-black look at the frailties of mankind as seen through the distorted lens of religion. But the tale is universal enough to apply to Wall Street, workplace relationships, social engagement, any sort of environment where conformism is the norm. The four men sharing a simple, daily existence in the cottage, forbidden to have any contact with the outside world, turn out to be priests who have fallen foul of the hierarchy for different reasons, and a new arrival, closely followed by a mysterious stranger, quickly throws their routine into a disarray that is not just psychological.

Without spoiling the plot points (and this is one film whose compact, intense impact depends a lot on drip-feeding its unfolding revelations), suffice to say that the silent confrontations between these defrocked men of the cloth and the efficient, organized higher-up who comes in to defuse the crisis disprove any well-meaning ideas: morality, righteousness and humanity prove to be very relative concepts in their hands. Not one of these characters, inside or outside the unspoken gates of the cottage, is innocent, but neither are they fully guilty, nor better or worse than any of the others. They’re all inescapably imprisoned in their own personal nets of guilt and regret, and for all their sins not one of them is an inhuman monster or an irredeemable villain. 

Hidden away by a church hierarchy attempting a sleight-of-hand diversion to avoid facing up to its responsibilities, these men realise where their power lies, and they also understand how penance and atonement are mere abstract concepts standing in for the need of owning your deeds and your thoughts, and for the realization of their inability to escape them. 

What’s most striking about The Club is its cold, clinical resignation to a sort of affectless limbo, a deaf, white-noise desperation. Working in widescreen with a series of unusual focus and lighting choices expertly deployed by the great DP Sergio Armstrong, that see-saw between a grayish, diffuse, almost drizzly light and a somber, nocturnal palette, the director ellicits from a cast drawn from his usual repertory company intensely truthful performances. These are people whose belief in God, as misguided as it may have been, was also a requirement to survive the truth they witnessed in their daily practice, and its awkward juxtaposition with the rose-tinted platitudes the church wished to project. 

Mr. Larraín’s films have always, in a way, borne witness to the specific context and historical experience of Latin America, but The Club widens that witness onto a hot contemporary topic while refusing to simplify it into well-meaning intellectual platitudes. Instead, it multiplies its viewing angles until the viewer himself comes out feeling dirty, soiled, hopeless, yet aware that demonizing the other is entirely impossible. That means we would have to demonize ourselves. And that is why the priests of The Club are hiding in plain sight: let he who lives in a glass house cast the first stone. 

EL CLUB 

CAST Alfredo Castro, Roberto Farías, Antonia Zegers, Marcelo Alonso, Jaime Vadell, Alejandro Goic, Alejandro Sieveking, José Soza, Francisco Reyes; DIR Pablo Larraín; SCR Mr. Larraín, Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos; DP Sergio Armstrong; MUS Carlos Cabezas; PROD/COST DES Estefania Larraín; ED Sebastián Sepúlveda; PROD Juan de Díos Larraín; Fabula, CL, 2015, 97 minutes

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