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To their own devices: Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'

To their own devices: Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'
by Bryan Harvey

To their own devices: A reflection on Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'

May 22, 2016

A man stands on a beach, holding a long pole. He turns in a circle. Tethered to the pole is bit of fur, possibly a rabbit’s. A dog chases the fur. The man drags the fur in the sand. The dog lowers its neck. The man raises the fur high into the air. The dog raises its neck and snout. The dog chases the fur in orbit around the man. He is the center. He is a priest.

Pablo Larrain’s The Club (2015) begins and ends under a gray, overcast sky. In the shot where the dog wears a track around the man, the ocean, at low tide, waits at a distance. For a film that takes place along the water, the water and the natural world are held at an odd distance, perhaps a reminder that the world need not confine itself to artificial orbits.

The majority of the scenes take place within the walls of a high yellow house, and, in many of the scenes that take place outside the house, the house is still visible. The first frame of the house foregrounds a closed wooden gate. Behind the gate is a set of stone steps, and a woman scrubs them clean.

This yellow house is dull with grime, even gentle in its old age. The first shots inside the house feature two old men on couches, watching television. The photography inside the house suspends the men in a gray mist, as if the clouds over the ocean are inside the yellow house, too. Somehow the outside world manages to appear brighter through the windows, even though it is still overcast.

The next frame is of the earth’s deep brown soil and an old man’s pick axe. As he tends to his garden, he wears a sweater. He is tired. The sound of his lungs sucking for oxygen is clearly audible. The camera cuts to the ocean. The low waves furl over jagged rocks. A sail bobs in the distance. A man—the priest with the long pole—smiles at the water. His dog kneels beside him in obedience. Their silhouettes blot out the rising sun. When he kneels to pat the dog, the glare of the sun causes the audience to squint.

This man is not of the light, but between it and the rest of the world. He is a wooden gate and stone steps; a yellow house filled with gray clouds. He trains the dog to be fast and to chase meaningless baubles. And he is proud. So proud. His family of fellow priests look at him and smile, as if framed within a family portrait. They are old. They appear fairly harmless in their rituals.

After a scene of these priests at the dinner table, they will attend a dog race. They will lead the dog to the site of the races, but they will watch from afar, on top of a hill. They will peer down with binoculars, and this distance will make them appear, at once, as both the town’s race day authorities and its outcasts. The woman who earlier cleaned the steps of dirt supervises the dog’s entry into the race. She loads the dog into a gate, whose dull yellow paint matches that of the yellow house at the end of the road.

She is, in this way, a stand in for the Virgin Mary, and the dog is a strange substitute for Christ; for the priests enter into the town’s everyday affairs via the dog. In this sense, the dog is also a substitute for them, which renders them as holy and distant from the world as any Catholic’s God.

The Club therefore is a film that at its core is essentially about place and distance. The first words from the film are written, rather than spoken: “God saw that the light was good, and he separated it from the darkness.” These early lines from Genesis are about the geographical differences between good and evil, or the defining of abstract borders. The start of this film sways the audience to believe these men are good, even if they are mischievous in their betting habits. Still, such vices appear rather harmless in the grand scheme of heaven and hell and the eternal fate of human souls.

But then a fifth priest joins them. And, in the meeting of this priest, the yellow house reveals itself to be something other than a retreat for old men of the cloth. The yellow house is a place to set aside thedarkness, so the Catholic Church, as an institution, may remain a beacon of hope in a dark world.

Furthermore, in this scene a stranger, whose name will later be revealed as Sandokan (Roberto Farìas) appears at the wooden gate and begins yelling words that, depending on one’s allegiances, are either truthful or blasphemous. He accuses, in profane detail, what this fifth priest, Matìas Lazcano (Josè Soza), did to him years ago when he was a boy. Sandokan has followed Padre Lazcano to the end of the road, to the yellow house, to wail his holy complaints about foreskin, semen and salvation.

The other priests give Padre Lazcano a gun. They want him to walk down the stone steps and scare away the stranger and his truth. They want to separate the darkness from their pretense of light. Padre Lazcano takes the gun. He walks down the steps. Sandokan continues his violent recital. The father raises the gun. He pulls the trigger. The bullet flies through his head, and the steps must be cleaned of a stain that it can be argued both Lazcano and Sandokan are responsible.

I do not mean to argue that Sandokan is not a victim, nor that Lazcano is not a man of evil acts. What I mean to suggest is that The Club’s version of victimhood is beyond what most films and conversations about child abuse, rape, and sexual assault tend to depict. There is, in other words, no space between good and evil. Sandokan both loves and hates Padre Lazcano, and, as a victim who feels conflicting emotions about his assailant, he cannot separate the light from the darkness. For him, the priests are both holy and monstrous. They sinned against him, and yet he finds holiness in the deceit. They showed him love, and he is tormented not only by the crime, but by the crime’s lack of simplicity.

As Sandokan’s pain washes over the film, this lack of simplicity treats the film’s audience like Padre Vidal (Alfredo Castro) leading a dog in circles on the beach, only Sandokan’s presence, along with a sixth priest’s investigation into the yellow house, unmoors the daily rituals of these four unholy men and their housekeeper (or guard), Hermana Mònica (Antonia Zegers).

The film’s climax is a montage that includes the murder of two greyhounds, including Padre Vidal’s dog, Rayo. The beating of Padre Vidal on the same beach where he trained Rayo. The scapegoating of Sandokan. The masterful plotting of Hermana Mònica. And the ambiguous involvement of the sixth priest, Padre Garcìa (Marcelo Alonso). Through this entire montage, the camera looks up at the action, floating and bobbing, not stable and decentered within the sea of crime and deceit.

When the sequence is over, the camera will cut to the sun dying in a horizon of pink blood. In the next frame, Padre Garcìa will wash Sandokan’s feet, wrap them in a towel, and kiss them. When this father leaves the yellow house, he will leave Sandokan in the place of himself and the deceased Padre Lazcano. The lost lamb will have been begrudgingly accepted back inside the gates into a space that the Church never intended for him. And he will eat and sleep beside the very same men who ruined his life and to whom he still feels tragically indebted.

If Sandokan’s character appeared more stable, this scene might be about forgiveness. But he isn’t. He is a man of both hate and love.  Earlier he vowed to penetrate the priests as they did him, while in another scene he confessed his love for the priesthood. His sincerity wants to destroy and preserve their sanctity. Thus, the film’s conclusion is less about his offering forgiveness and more about the priests serving penitence.

Yet, if penitence and forgiveness necessitate such complicated circumstances, the acts are rendered quite unnerving in their messiness. In the context of these crimes, which harm the body and the faith, belief traps victims and perpetrators together, meaning that the healing process may not result from separation, because separation may be impossible within communities of faith. After all, the ideologies of the Catholic institution rely on notions of convergence. Such is the last scene of The Club.

Inside the yellow house, Padre Garcìa, Hermana Mònica, the house’s four resident priests, and Sandokan sit around a coffee table. Sandokan provides a long list of prescription drugs he needs to remain stable. This list suggests that faith alone is not enough to survive in this world and that his presence within the house could be a temptation to these priests looking to escape their crimes. Then Padre Garcìa begins to sing “The Lamb of God.” The others join him in the singing. Padre Garcìa rises from his chair. As they continue to sing, he exits the house and walks down the stone steps. The fate of the priests and Sandokan in the yellow house is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the individuals within the yellow house will be left, for better or worse, to their own devices. The investigation will report nothing of consequence.

Whereas a film like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) extrapolates these intersections within a particular neighborhood and the city of Boston to be globally awful, The Club confines these experiences within a claustrophobic space that only the victims who can’t stop believing could ever really understand.

Another way to think about this difference is to observe the obvious. Spotlight, while a masterful film, is a Hollywood production about metropolitan Boston. While the victims in this film lived well outside the city’s margins of wealth and power, the victims and perpetrators in The Club exist even more outside the margins of power and concern. I don’t know quite what to make of that other than to ponder the world’s many hiding places and how those places must be filled with ample opportunity for both good and evil, whatever they might be. We can either peer into them or not, but either way responsibility will find us. 

Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys


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