A punch in the gut.
Some filmmakers provide a virtual version of that kind of experience. An audiovisual strike to the viscera. A one-two to the psychological midsection. That's what Pablo Larraín delivers with The Club, which screened at Carbon Arc on Friday.
I wasn't familiar with the Chilean director's work, but was bowled over by this film. I knew it wasn't going to be easy viewing, but didn't expect the combination of elements—the complex characterizations, the sudden violence, the unusual choices with the cinematography, and a plot twist late in the running that allows Larraín to double down on his gift for unnerving his audience.
Let's go through these elements:
Four priests live in a house in a small town on the coast of Chile, watched over by a former nun. This is a house of penance for whispered-about sins, but it seems a little more like a modest suburban retreat with a little recreational dog racing on the side to make some money—they care for a talented greyhound.
After a shocking incident early in the film, a representative of the church appears. His job seems to be to close this house down, and he needs to come to grips with these men and their crimes, their sins. We get to understand them a little, first as a group of seemingly harmless men (and a woman) living together in peace. But as we go along, we see how they've justified what they've done in their lives by blaming the church, blaming others, blaming god and love, or, in one case, simply forgetting. Another key character is an antagonist from outside, a troubled man who circles the group, someone who carries the legacy of abuse with him and shares the details of his experience whenever he gets the chance.
That incident early on sets the tone for the rest of the film. The violence arrives shortly after the presentation of a pistol, but then everyone involved lies about what actually happened. It's brutal and sudden, and its bloody reality haunts the rest of the film's running time. The score, using selections from some of the most despairing music in the world—Arvo Part, natch'—helps sustain that dread.
Larraín and his Director of Photography Sergio Armstrong chose a blue filter to provide a foggy, indistinct visual experience, which I suspect was done to provide a feeling of purgatorial gloom, a terminal twilight. As with Larraín's instincts as a storyteller, I was impressed with the technique, though I did find some shots so muddy I wasn't entirely sure what I was seeing.
But maybe that was the point. As the audience exited the screening room—many of them looking a little like that emoji with the saucer-wide eyes—I realized the film continually kept us discomfited, by the way it looked and the story it told.
If graphic details of the abuse priests in the Catholic Church brought upon children in their care wasn't enough, Larraín adds a powerful element in the final act that drives the point home. I don't want to be too specific for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but it involves violence toward animals. As a plot point, it's devastatingly effective: it provides an analogy to the idea of violence done to children in a way that you couldn't possibly show on screen. Just in case you were lacking in empathy, here's how you might feel it more potently.
In a conversation after the film, an audience member told me he enjoyed the film's absurd humour, which allowed for an exhalation of breath in between all the more serious moments. The tone of those mordant laughs also suggested that Larraín, in dealing with this subject matter, refused to take it 100% seriously. How could he, how could anybody, faced with this worldwide atrocity and organizational culpability? It's as if he was saying, "This entire situation is absurd, and I won't dignify it by approaching it without addressing that absurdity." It doesn't make it, or the film, feel any less tragic.
We also talked about Spotlight, how Tom McCarthy's film refused to stare into the abyss the way this one does. But it's apples and oranges. The Academy Award-winning Spotlight is much more about the journalism that uncovered the scandal. The one moment where it approaches the feeling of regret that The Club has in spades is where Michael Keaton's Walter "Robby" Robinson and his group come to terms with having missed the opportunity to tell this story years earlier. That realization takes from them much of the joy of their professional success.
The final thing I took from The Club is the filmmaker's deep rage, and in that a bold indictment of the Church. This is powerful stuff.
Some good news for Carbon Arc audiences: The program for the rest of the Winter/Spring 2016 season has been locked right through to the end of April.
Coming up next Friday, April the 15th, is My Golden Days, the newest film from award-winning French auteur Arnaud Desplechin. Check back to the blog this week: I'll interview a local Desplechin enthusiast about the filmmaker.
On April 22 we have two features, the Canadian Film Day free screening of Anne Emond's Our Loved Ones (Les Etres Chers) at 7pm, and an American indie thriller The Invitation, from director Karen Kusama, at 9:30.
Looking ahead to Friday, April 29, we've got Francofonia, from Russian director Alexander Sokurov, probably best known for his drama Russian Ark, shot in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. This new film is a historical drama about the Louvre.
For more information about all these films, please visit the Events Page on the Carbon Arc website.
I'll be spending part of the week to come looking for recordings. As I explained in the last post, I've decided to write a short film based on a longer autobiographical script, A Year in Baghdad, with the hope of animating some of it. I realized I could just base it on the script alone, or I could maybe use some of the sound from interviews I did with my parents. But where are those tapes? I wouldn't have thrown those out, but this may require an archeological dig.