Pluralism as Penance: Pablo Larraín’s The Club. Reviewed by Stephen Borunda

The Club (Music Box Films, 2015)

Pablo Larraín’s unorthodox drama The Club (2015) centers on a company of dishonored parochial members that live just outside a small beach community named La Boca (The Mouth) in central Chile. While the setting of the film may be unfamiliar to many Western audiences, the sins of the former members of the clergy are all too recognizable. Reminiscent of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), these shunned sacerdotal individuals have committed heinous crimes ranging from pedophilia to child kidnapping. Ironically, these former church leaders appear to live in a sort of peaceful exile.

We quickly learn that, in fact, members in “The Club” lead tranquil lives because they have been granted clemency by the church and, consequently, they do not interact with the general public. At the fons et origo of the film, our characters – binoculars in hand – watch a neighborhood dog race. The members of the home own a canine and they have won quite a bit of money from such races. Besides training their pet for races they lead lives revolving around faith, care for their home, and ensuring that they do not lapse into immorality. They have created a home grounded in self-preservation and the exclusion of corrupt “others” that might catalyze moral degradation within their home. This semblance of holiness is expressed in Larraín’s cinematography as he opts to leave many wide shots of the beach and locations overexposed; white floods the screen and is nearly overwhelming – hinting that beneath the surface of pristineness, things aren’t quite right.

The Club (Music Box Films, 2015)

However, the status quo terminates when a local vagabond named Sandokan (Roberto Farías) arrives on the scene. Aggressively demanding that a newly arrived priest come to speak with him, Sandokan might be easily mistaken as the antagonist by spectators. He is bearded, his hair unkempt, and he wears a conspicuous earring. In his acting throughout the film, Roberto Farías embodies the biform desires for revenge and love understandably held by a victim of sexual trauma. When Sandokan’s wish to see the priest is not reciprocated, his monologue becomes increasingly more explicit as he describes his sexual experiences as a child with the priest. After several minutes, the priest guilty of these heinous acts shoots himself in the head in the yard of the house.

At this point in the film’s diegesis, the audience is introduced to Padre García (Marcelo Alonso) – a man renowned in the church for his work with the impoverished. He is determined to assess the state of affairs in this church-sponsored residency following the suicide. While Hermana Mónica (Antonia Zegers) tries to convince Padre García of the reformed hearts of the priests in the home, Padre García seems troubled that the church supports this sort of residency and he is intent on closing it.

The Club (Music Box Films, 2015)

As tensions continue to build between Padre García and the rest of the priests, Sandokan looms around the narrative like a specter. Sandokan’s attempt to tempt the intellectual stoic Padre Vidal (Alfredo Castro) with homosexual relations and his construction of a makeshift home near the priests’ residency exasperates them. But Padre Vidal’s true identity as a proud but celibate homosexual provides us with a revelation: “The Club” is unable to tolerate Sandokan because his presence exposes what is already in their hearts. For all of their attempts to protect themselves from the world, these sinners cannot protect their hearts from themselves.

Søren Kierkegaard’s tome of Christian existentialism entitled Works of Love declares that the Golden Rule to love your neighbor is actually of the widest horizons. Kierkegaard posits: “Your neighbor is every man…” and he has “equality with you before God” (72). These besmirched members of the church have forgotten this message at the root of the gospel they profess to follow; their hate as a result of this oversight leads to frightful consequences.

The Club (Music Box Films, 2015)

Subsequent to his encounter with Sandokan, Padre Vidal attempts to recruit surfing locals to accost the itinerant. But, unbeknownst to Vidal, the other members of “The Club” have already successfully framed Sandokan as a local dog assassin. Such measures result in Sandokan being nearly beaten to death by the town and “The Club’s” beloved racing dog murdered. The film’s denouement leaves us with Padre García nursing Sandokan back to health (in a Christlike scene where Padre García washes Sandokan’s feet). Padre García then declares that he will abandon his efforts to close the home if the residents of “The Club” simply tolerate Sandokan as a member and provide him with shelter. After prompting the new assembly to sing together in unison, Padre García departs. Thus, the penance for the sins of these priests is to no longer lead isolated lives but to instead reside in a pluralistic household – to embrace the messiness of difference in what pluralist philosopher William James terms “litter” (A Pluralistic Universe).

We might be quick to dismiss the applicability of Larraín’s twisted tale about the acceptance of “litter” in our own lives, as surely we have nothing in common with these despicable priests. But, Béla Balázs reminds us that in “film the permanent distance from the work fades out of the consciousness of the spectator and that inner distance as well, which hitherto was a part of the experience of art” (Corrigan, White, and Mazaj 127). Films provide us with the opportunity to transpose ourselves into the shoes of those we are not. We may not have committed the crimes of the priests in Larraín’s film but with our chants for walls and our denial of refugees into the United States, we as a society certainly continue to practice their exclusionary methods. Larraín’s work is an excellent reminder for us to evaluate our own homes before throwing stones at the homes of others.

Works Cited

Corrigan, Timothy, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, editors. Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011. Print.

James, William. A Pluralistic Universe. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. Print.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1962. Print.

Author Biography

Stephen Borunda is a Mexican-American filmmaker, educator, and writer currently residing in Santiago de Chile. He just completed post-production on his most recent film Boost – a stop-motion short about an abandoned robot that finds friendship. He has written pieces for Film Inquiry and Film Matters. He graduated from The Johns Hopkins University with a BA in political science and history and an MS in education. He hopes to synthesize these areas of passion for film by pursuing a PhD in cinema with a concentration on Latin American films in the Southern Cone.

Film Details

The Club (2015)
Director Pablo Larraín
Runtime 98 minutes

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