Film critic David Elliott introduced me to the Chilean original Pablo Larrain, now on his fifth feature, The Club, which opens Friday at Landmark Hillcrest. A Post-It affixed to a San Diego Film Festival screener (read: a DVD with Tony Manero scribbled across the front in Sharpie) read simply, “Your kind of movie!”
Set against the backdrop of Pinochet’s war-torn regime, the pitch-black satire acquainted audiences with the titular sociopath, a middle-aged family man of sorts who is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, and will stop at nothing to win a John Travolta lookalike contest. Elliott was right. It was love at first blight!
Following a quote from Genesis 1:1, The Club opens, fittingly enough, at dusk as an anonymous figure runs his dog in circles. A glacial pall engulfs the steadily sunless beachfront town of La Boca, but for the five fallen priests who are sentenced to make it their purgatory, it might as well be an all-inclusive stay at Club Med. The quintet is free to drink, gamble, and garden their days away, their only punishment being a promise to sin no more.
What exactly all of these men did to earn their place in this repentant, Vatican-approved house of detention is never made clear. But a new arrival’s stay is cut short after the graphically detailed curbside taunts of a former victim named Sandokan (Roberto Farías) force the child-rapist to confront his accuser with gun in hand. Instead of firing off a warning shot, the pistol makes an unexpected and suicidal turn toward the priest’s temple.
Ashen-faced Larrain staple Alfredo Castro is brilliant as always (is this the first time in four features that he’s been allowed to crack a smile?), but it’s Antonia Zegers’s Sister Mónica — the only hen in the rooster cage, who acts as the terminally sunny “jail-keeper” and knows a good meal ticket when she rides one — who earns top acting honors.
Acting on their suspicions — the deceased didn’t own a gun, nor did he exhibit any outward signs of depression — the Church dispatches Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) to act as both investigator and Father confessor. The new temporary live-in member comes possessed with an ability to shutter the spa, and it’s during these scenes that Larrain’s unmistakable ability to shed laughter on the most inopportune moments surges to the fore.
It’s the calm before the storm, however, as the scattered third half resorts to shock and horror as a means of tying loose threads. Not that the director is a stranger to hysteria — Tony Manero has the feel of a pre-MPAA John Waters comedy (if the latter possessed even a modicum of visual literacy and structural intent). Still, Larrain’s script could have withstood a little rein-tightening. The climactic carnage that overruns both man and beast (capped by the on-screen fulfillment of Sandokan’s wildest anal fantasy) nudges this well away from social commentary and in the direction of ineffective gothic horror.