The Chilean filmmaker opens up about the inspiration for his harrowing latest film.
When Spotlight (2015) recently triumphed at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, scooping up the award for Best Picture ahead of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s all-consuming western The Revenant (2015), it highlighted how intrigue surrounding universal cover-ups of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church refuses to go away. It’s a subject that filmmakers as diverse as Alex Gibney and Amy Berg have dealt with in a handful of damning documentaries, and one that serves as the basis for Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s harrowing latest drama, The Club (2015).
Whereas Larraín’s previous work has explored the political movements and ramifications of dictator Augusto Pinochet (the Oscar-nominated No (2012) starring Gael García Bernal being the most recent), his latest came about as a product of his frustrations waiting for his large-scale upcoming biopic of prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda to get off the ground.
Co-scripted by Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos, the film proved to be something of a gathering of Larraín’s frequent collaborators of writers and actors, who banded together for a 2 ½ week shoot to create a film based on a horrifying reality.
The film tells the story of a crisis counsellor who is sent to a small Chilean beach town to visit four retired Catholic priests, who share a secluded house in the hills under the watchful eye of a female caretaker. These men are there to be discreetly purged of their previous sins and crimes, which range from child abuse to baby snatching from unwed mothers.
Living a secluded existence under a strict regime, the priest’s already turbulent lives are ruptured with the arrival of a newly disgraced fifth man who brings with him a past they’ve desperately tried to leave behind.
Having premiered in the Official Competition section at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, Larraín’s fifth feature is a provoking portrait of a timely subject that continues to make waves, not least for its frank dialogue sequences (best seen in a scintillating early scene where an abuse victim confronts his once-hidden perpetrator). It’s a film that also came about by the director’s experience being raised in Catholic schools and being around an assortment of priests – some innocent, others undergoing legal procedures for abuse-related crimes.
“Five or six years ago I remember seeing a picture of a house in Germany that played host to a bunch of priests, one of which was a Chilean man who was accused of sexual abuse,” says Larraín when discussing his inspiration for the film. “Before his trial began he left the country and was living in that house, which was such a beautiful, idyllic house. When we were putting the film together I was so intrigued by how one could see this house from the outside, and it made me wonder what would happen if you were to take a camera inside.”
You need an active audience to watch the film, which is where it really works
Not only did this question guide the film, it also lead to an extensive period of research into these types of safe houses across the world, which not only house priests with sexual issues but those who are also too old, battling homosexuality, etc. Larraín interviewed former clergy members and religious operators who offered insight into the functionalities of these types of homes for problematic priests to retire and seek penance, which made the screenplay more accurate an interpretation.
He also spoke to victims of years-long systematic abuse as a base of reference, who he found to have a very specific – and very surprising – mode of describing their experiences. “We found that these people talked very openly about something they have a lot of fear over, which is actually very similar to cinema,” says Larraín. “If you somehow portrayed it in cinema, then the audience would create the image instead of the filmmaker, as the imagination of people is often more violent and perverse than anything you can shoot. You need an active audience to watch the film, which is where it really works.”
Larraín believes that, unlike back in the day when it was far more difficult for victims of abuse to speak out, today’s society is more accepting and supportive of those suffering from psychological unrest, as well as expectant of them to help encourage fellow sufferers who may not be able to speak out (like the deaf students depicted in Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)) to do so. It’s an interesting indication of how fervent today’s universal desire is to catch and punish those guilty of such heinous crimes, as well as how the media has created something of a thorn in the church’s collective side.
When asked whether he has faced any opposition from the church, Larraín is quick to point out that the likes of the Vatican have upheld the logic of Conclave, where everything is done in silence and behind closed doors. “What the church does is not say anything. If they did they would end up supporting the movie and making it more visible by default, and they know it’s not a good representation of them, so they just don’t” says Larraín.
“The problem is not only do they not say anything, but they don’t say anything about the priesthood actually being a problem, either, which is strange,” he adds. “It’s more of a corporation than an institution that wants to deliver Christ’s messages about forgiveness, compassion and being humble, yet when you apply it to them they don’t practice what they preach. It’s an interesting paradox.”
The Club is in UK cinemas 25 March 2016