Chilean director Pablo Larraín has earned his reputation as a modern master thanks to three highly heterogeneous films dealing with the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chilean society. But when this unintentional trilogy closed out with 2012’s unsettlingly saccharine No — which was nominated for an Academy Award that same year — the big question was: what now? And Larraín answered with a resounding statement at this year’s Berlinale.
His fourth feature, El Club (The Club) uses the language of the cinematic thriller to air out some of the Catholic Church’s dirty laundry in a country where the Opus Dei still wields considerable influence. So while the subject matter is familiar to most Western societies, Larraín clearly has his sights set on his country’s own idiosyncratic relationship with the Church. But rather than taking a more explicit route, Larraín chose to elaborate a slow-burning chamber piece that focuses on a secluded community of priests on the blustery Pacific coast.
Cleverly concealing key information, El Club presents us with a house full of priests living under the care of a nun in inexplicable isolation. When a new arrival is recognized by a local man as his one-time abuser, the priest promptly points a gun to his own head and blows his brains out. The house, it turns out, is a sort of secret ‘penitence center’ for pedophile priests, and what follows is a desperate attempt to cover up the Church’s dirty secrets as the truth comes dangerously close to compromising the its legitimacy.
Returning to the naturalistic, intimate cinematography of his debut masterpiece Tony Manero, Larraín opts for low-contrast lighting and wide angle lenses, giving a slightly distorted feeling to the film’s otherwise natural aesthetic. But beyond the noteworthy visual approach and dense, unsettling soundtrack, El Club puts its focus squarely on the actors. And indeed, what critics have praised most about the film are its stunning performances.
Overall it seems Larraín’s hot streak hasn’t let up in the least, and El Club earned him a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Fest. The feature is slated for U.S. release sometime soon, but no official dates have been set.