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A man trains a greyhound on a windswept beach; a woman, warmly dressed, vigorously sweeps the paving outside a yellow house, built halfway up an incline; another, older, man digs in the terraced garden. The colouring is faded, greyish. It could be Ireland.
The theme of the sombre story that unfolds could also be Irish, for it is about the decay of the Catholic Church and how it handles its miscreants. But this is Chile, through the dispiriting, quietly furious eyes of director Pablo Larrain.
We are in a windswept coastal village, called La Boca. Four men, and the sweeping woman, have shares in a greyhound called Rayo, which has been clocking up record times. They discuss entering Rayo in major races in the capital, Santiago, but there appears to be a problem. “I could take him,” the woman offers. “But you would have to be replaced,” one of the men says. “Impossible,” she replies with a little smile.
The five eat meals together, in silence, not totally uncomfortable. They race their dog, they feed the oldest man of the group, who is senile. Slowly, the truth of the situation comes out, when a new arrival, Father Mateo Lazcano, is brought to the house.
Soon another man arrives, from, it seems, a more privileged background. He is tall and slim, with piercing eyes, a figure from a painting by El Greco. He is the enforcer.
I don’t want to give much more of the story, except to say it works gracefully towards its teeth-clenching conclusion. A drifter, Sardokan, appears and speaks his truth. His words are often difficult to hear, nauseating at times. Larrain is not pulling any punches, as is his want.
Do not even think of bringing children to this film – I expect it has an ‘18’ classification here, and in the old days it would most likely have been banned altogether, so uncompromising are the themes. This is a horror film, in the true sense.
The setting is Chile, but the themes, of corruption in the Catholic Church, of repentance and redemption, if these things exist, are universal. A rather uncomfortable sub-theme is homosexuality, and there are some thought-provoking words on this, and the place of the priest, from Vidal, the greyhound’s trainer, played magnificently by Alfredo Castor.
But the scene stealer, the film’s subtle virago, is Antonia Zegers, in real life the former Mrs Larrain, as Hermana Monica. Always serene, Monica has bottled her evil and attempts to pour a soothing oil of this substance over the troubled waters of the miserable lives around her.
Larrain’s movies are described by IMDB as “not for the faint-hearted”, and El Club bears that out. His previous major success was 2012’s No, with Gael Garcia Bernal. That, the story of the “no” campaign when dictator Agusto Pinochet held a referendum to perpetuate his presidency, was relatively upbeat and light-hearted, for Larrain. His Tony Manero, for example, a 2008 story of a working-class Santiago man whose delight is to dress up and perform like John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever, is a brilliant portrait, but profoundly depressing.
Usually in life we manage to suppress the dark side, the underlying discomfort and fear that people are not basically good. But Pablo Larrain seizes it by the scruff of the neck.
Larrain and his production company, Fabula, have also been involved with a cross-section of films, including 2011’s sci-fi 4:44 Last Day on Earth. He is currently working on Jackie, about the wife/widow of President Kennedy. The last major outing for that story was Killing Kennedy, a TV movie in 2013, with Ginnifer Goodwin as the widow. Natalie Portman plays Jackie in the upcoming release.
I both love and hate to think what Larrain’s take on that story will be like.
El Club opens at the Irish Film Insitute, on March 25th. Check out the trailer below.
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