Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s new movie The Club makes last year’s Spotlight look like kids’ stuff. It depicts a house of former priests (and their caretaker, a former nun), who live in exile in a small house on the Chilean coast. Soon after the arrival of a new housemate, a man accusing the new arrival of molesting him years ago shows up outside, threatening the former priests’ clandestine existence. In an attempt to shut down the house, the Catholic Church sends a much younger priest, Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), to interview its inhabitants in an attempt to get them to confess their past sins.
Using tight shots of its characters’ oblique recollections and sometimes nearly poetic descriptions of abuse, The Club confronts what the Church seems desperate to avoid. Its resolve chips away at the Church’s infrastructure by vividly illustrating how people with very different agendas can work together for the common cause of secrecy.
I spoke to Larraín yesterday about his audacious and frequently shocking film. Below is an edited condensed transcript of our conversation.
I read that you did quite a bit of research leading up to The Club. I wonder how extensive that research was?
It was not just me, it was a team of people. Maybe what you want to know, I guess, the most important thing, which is we were able to talk to former priests—people that were members of the Church and aren’t anymore. Those were our key sources. That’s how we got to understand this. But that’s also very public. You can go and Google stuff. There’s something called the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, which is an organization that used to do this in the United States and it’s open.
How forthcoming were the priests? When Father Garcia is conducting the interviews in the movie, the other priests are rather tight-lipped. I wonder if he was your avatar.
I realized that at least in my country, and I might be wrong, but I would say that after a lot of research, we did not find one single case where a priest would absolutely admit what he did. When you have that information and you know that certainty does not exist, something you’ll have to deal with at some point is the fact that those people are always manipulating the truth. At some point, you don’t know when you say “the truth,” what you mean by that. We’re not talking about journalism, you know? We’re not talking about facts. We’re talking about obstructions from a religion, like regret. Everything is a theological sort of manipulation that gets to be confusing and thereafter, to me, very interesting. It gives you tools to create a script, which we did with [co-writers Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos], which is to set up something that you never know who’s telling something that is potentially truth. You never know whether something is material or spiritual. Finally, you never ever really know if what they think is right or not.
You felt this way when talking to them?
Yeah, and it’s also what you read. There are cases everywhere every week about new scandals like this. There’s always an explanation. There’s always something if you want to hear. There’s always something that’s confusing. That’s interesting. I think cinema needs that. It needs a humanity in conflict. Somehow, like it or not, those guys are part of a social world that we all belong to. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying those guys exist because there’s something called religion, there’s something called justice, and there’s something called desire. That’s the cocktail.
Watching the movie made me wonder if priesthood attracts a disproportionate amount of pedophiles or if there are just a ton of pedophiles in the world since these stories are common and we don’t even hear the half of them.
I have no idea. But this is something important: I’m not a journalist. I don’t want to change anything. I don’t want to educate anybody about anything. I just think there’s interesting material. There are dangers and they are awkward and violent and spiritual, and all that comes from a humanity that is in danger. It’s just interesting to deal with those materials as a filmmaker. That’s the limit of cinema and religion and politics: Where are you stepping? I don’t feel the responsibility of trying to do something. I don’t think art is necessarily connected to responsibility.
But at the same time, this is based on true stories.
Some of them are, some of the cases are real. I was never able to get into any of those houses. So to just create a fiction, you imagine what would be potentially happening inside of them.
It’s interesting that you say that you don’t want to educate. I felt educated watching this because the subject matter is so secretive that any shred of information feels enlightening.
But it’s not something that came out of testimonies. We don’t know how those houses are in reality. We wanted to see what happened inside of that house if someone, after all this time, a victim would go and face the guy. What happens? And then we start to create all this and realized we had a great task to deliver the story that you saw with that ending. It has a conclusion, it has a perspective, it has something that is interesting, to me.
Stacking your story with characters who are unreliable by nature builds a mystery right into your story.
Yes, that’s what happens with the audience, but what I try to do is look at them with compassion. I try to humanize them. Otherwise it would be a super judgmental movie that’s just telling how wrong these people are. I just set up a situation where you need an active audience.
A lot of people have a hard time watching this movie. When you were making it, how cognizant were you that this would repel people, especially the graphic descriptions of abuse?
I think people have a hard time with it because we’re not showing [abuse]. If I had shot a flashback, for example, or whatever, and I would recreate that situation, it wouldn’t be as violent as it is now. People create their own elements of what he’s describing in their head, and that is a lot more violent. There’s nothing more violent and perverse than the human mind. There’s no single image in the movie that would be as violent as the elements the audience is creating in its mind. When people say what you just did at Q&As, I say, “Yeah, sure, but how about you, man? What’s in your head?”
The movie, at times, plays like a dark comedy, which is surprising given the subject matter.
I think when there’s something [in the movie] that could be considered humor, it’s the kind of humor that makes you feel weird. It triggers the sensation that you don’t know if you should be laughing or not. That’s interesting. I believe the humor is a tool that lets you say things that would otherwise sound very preachy. The humor in the movie is the humor of excess, humor of the absurd. It’s the humor of a humanity that is completely out of control.
The movie wasn’t—or at least its characters weren’t—too interested in separating pedophilia and homosexuality. Whereas other conversations about this material are careful to draw the lines, The Club blurs them.
I was raised Catholic and was never abused, but I thought it was interesting that this was out of focus. If you talk to the the church members, it’s very hard to have a very clear answer to how they should behave. That’s another issue: The confusion that creates these kinds of secrets. I know that homosexuality and pedophilia are two different things: One is a sexual orientation and another is an illness. We thought it would become preachy if you start saying those things. I just tried to understand, even though it could be horrible, why someone would have desire for children. I’m a father. It’s terrifying to me. You don’t even have to judge it. It’s so horrible that the judgment’s already made. You just have to put it in front of the camera and wait for a reaction from the audience.
Have you heard from the Vatican or from anyone higher up about this movie?
Of course not. The Vatican is expert at communication. They know if they talk about the movie, they would bring more exposure to it. They avoid it. If there’s anything that the Church respects and fears it’s media. More than Hell. And that is contemporary, that is new. Media is doing a strange kind of justice. It looks like the only way.
The Club is in select theaters now.
[Image via Music Box Films/Fabula]