This is a review that I wrote for the national release of this film. I am translating and adding some notes and fixes here and there. Here it is.
by Jaime Grijalba.
The latest film of Pablo Larrain has arrived to our theaters, director of what are possibly the Chilean fiction films that are the most known outside of our country: ‘No’ (2012), Post Mortem (2010) and Tony Manero (2008). They’ve made the rounds and have won awards in the best festivals of the world and have been selected to represent the country in international awards. And ‘El Club’ is no different, as it comes with the force of winning one of the most important prizes in the Berlinale, one of the most important film festivals of the year. Nevertheless,”the critics in power”, that means, those that are listened by most “cinephiles”, have fallen into some sort of collective hysteria related to the last two films of Larraín, as if they said “this is the way that fiction cinema should be done in Chile” or “every film should be like this one”. This isn’t a review, this is maybe a cold cloth between all this hysteria: yes, the new Larraín film is good, but it’s not the medicine, it won’t fix the panorama, it isn’t an example that everyone should follow, and I’d dare to say that there are other films that were presented in Berlin that should’ve won its prize.
There are two main reasons that make me think that the film might be a deficient product, and even if I do think that the film surpasses these and creates a somewhat interesting narrative, I can’t stop thinking in how these script faults and laughable moments are what have stayed with me and not all the rest that I admired when I was watching it, like the impressive cast that does an (expected) impeccable job. Let’s start with the premise that in itself it’s interesting, that the house in Chile’s coast that holds excomulgated priests or that should leave their churches to hide from justice or that are being chased, and even if that isn’t clear from the start, it presents itself swiftly and the first twenty minutes of the movie are no doubt the best that it has until the climax near the end. All along the film we get to know the priests, one by one, and that’s where I find one of the biggest faults in the script: the group might be too perfect.
What I want to say with this is that each priest represent a classic criminal aspect in which members of the Chilean Church have been involved in the past forty-fifty years. It’s not a house only for pedophile priests, as much as one character repeats it once and again, but each and every one of the priests represent a crime or an angle. There’s one who confessed soldiers and generals and withheld the information to human rights investigators, another one who exchanged babies of wealthy couples and made fake burials to “help them” (maybe the most pathetic and laughable dialogue in the movie comes from the one interpreted by Alejandro Goic who says ‘now there are blonds in camp settlements and blackheads in the high society’), another who said that could “understand” pedophiles and that at the same time is homosexual, and a priest that can’t remember what he did to be in the house that many years. So it just appears that they are a banal collection of “the most famous cases in which members of the Church have been involved in the past years of Chile”, and lamentably it isn’t organic because it’s presented like what it is: a collection, an numeration of “themes that are in everyone’s mouth”, and because of that none of the characters manage to convince as real, and only in the case of Alfredo Castro they have any weight on how the character acts and what he does.
The second element that gets me distant and finally impedes me to believe in what many are saying these days about the film and its future as a national “masterpiece”, is the dialogue, and in particular the one spoken by the actor Roberto Farías, who interprets a victim of rape by the last priest that arrives at the house, obviously he’s all grown up and has followed him along the whole country for… something. It’s never clear if what he wants is redemption, vengeance, explanations or denouncing him, or even if he was in love with the priest, and it could be all that at the same time, and then, become a character that, ideally, feels and looks absolutely complex. But there’s something in the acting and the alcoholized manner in which he yells, counting the abuses that he received and graphically describing each of the events that happened to him when he was a kid. It’s horrible to listen everything that he went through since he was sheltered in the care home of the priest, but at the same time there’s something in that performance, that seems to be a semi-pathetic tone that he gives to every line, a comical tone in the worst sense of the word.
The performance of Farías could have some complexity in theory, it’s a being absolutely determined by what happened in his childhood, he still is that terrorized kid that under the protected himself under the wings of the church to survive, and under those wings he received the worst kind of abuse, but the drunk manner in which he talks about foreskins, semen and ejaculations is laugh worthy. Honestly, I was holding my laughs that the pathetic demeanor caused and his tone of voice. It might be that my mind is distorted, but I think there’s a problem in not knowing the capacities that this film has of exploring that black humor, which exists, and that caused me guilty laughter in many moments, but the elegiac and revealing that the constant flaming speeches that Farías does, do that maybe one might be laughing at the movie and not with the movie.
Besides all that, there are many more debatable things inside the plot that Pablo Larraín presents, but to enter in these minutia could only lead to break down and over-analyze something that in a first glance, seems to be is a good film, but that I won’t remember at the end of the year, except for a few precise moments. The climax of the film, for example, even if I think it’s among its most interesting moments, during a lot of its run had me irritated and angry, because it seemed only a collection of characters doing things that represented deeper themes, but there wasn’t a joining element between the events that came before and what was happening. The irritation ended and it turned into admiration, but I think the doubts I have will only be deepened by a rewatch, so I just have this tenuous recommendation: see it, but don’t expect the New Chilean Masterpiece.