Chile’s entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 88th Academy Awards, The Club (original title: El Club) focuses on how the relatively peaceful household of four retired priests in a small seaside town is disrupted from an expected visitor.
We sit down with the director Pablo Larraín to talk about the film:
Q: Tell me about the genesis of the film. I understand you got the idea from a newspaper article about these club houses for priests.
A: What it really was a picture in a newspaper or the internet, and it was a picture of this house somewhere in Germany. It was a very beautiful house in a green field with a mountain backdrop. If you read the news, you will realise that it is actually a place where a Chilean priest from a German congregation called Schoenstatt, which is quite big in South America, was living there and this man whose last name is Cox escaped justice in my country, was accused of sexual abuse and he was living in this house.
It was strange because the house was beautiful and then it was incredible to think that someone who did that was living there. I wonder who else is in there, and it created a big mystery in me, like ‘what is going on?’ ‘how are they?’ and then we started to research and we found out a lot of stuff and that’s where the movie was born.
Q: Have you ever managed to get to one of these houses?
A: No, they would never let you. I know where one or two of them are located in my country, but there is a service in the US that actually does this. There was an official thing from the Vatican and it was closed in 2004. It ran for 50 years. But I was able to talk to some former priests like religious people who had left the church for multiple reasons and that’s how I understood how it works.
The problem with this kind of thing is that you shouldn’t attempt to associate with sexual issues, and it is not like that, really. There’s a lot of people there who are too old to be a priest, or maybe because, they lost their faith, or they’re ill, physically or mentally, or maybe they fall in love with a woman or man. They are multiple reasons why a priest is taken to a place like this, and of course, sexual issues as well. I was never able to get in there – they will never let you – and that is the key.
There are many Chilean priests that had gotten in trouble and four were tried in court. They left the country and they live in Argentina, Mexico, or Germany and they do know the law very well. The prescription is when you commit a crime and after a specific amount of years – could be 8, 12 or 15, depending on the law of the country, that crime would not be valued anymore so they wait, they control it until they cannot judge him.
Q: Father Garcia comes to the house in order to investigate crimes and the suicide of Father Matthias – we know from his background that he has shot down similar houses so who runs the houses and shoot them down?
A: Father Garcia would represent the new Pope because it’s a man that represents the idea of the new Church, which is more open, more close to the people, more humble, more willing for forgiveness and I thought it was interesting because you have a character that will represent one side of the church and the rest of them will represent the other side, the old church that has been running for 2,000 years.
So it represents the internal struggle of the Vatican, the church, and they both have different visions; the new vision was to shut down these places and wanted them to face the law, and the other one was to keep the old track which was more secret and obscure, as is the Vatican is. But what is interesting to me that when that finally happened, both sides and visions of the Church are somehow struggling with the same fear – the press, the media. They fear the media more than hell – if there is going to be a scandal, it will affect everybody in the Church, no matter what you think about it, so they have to stop it. That’s why he doesn’t it, and why the nun [Hermana Mónica] threatened him. It’s a new thing you could say in the Church; in the last 20 years, this has been happening.
The problem is now, we get to know them, basically, because the victims are willing to speak. Being a victim back in the day is different being a victim today; being a victim then was about shame and humiliation. You can say ‘this father abused me’, most people will now believe you and the ones who will feel sorry for you and make you feel weird. Today, if you go out and say the same thing, then you will feel protected. People will believe, support and encourage them because you will feel that the accused is going to be a man that will hopefully reform, so you will be able to stop them. So now, the victim is someone who is actually stopping it from happening, which is new so the combination with the new victim perspective and the press brings all these stories and the Church is handling it very well.
Q: Because of the sensitive subject, how did the cast take to the story?
A: They didn’t know about it because we never showed them the script. I’ve never done that before; I usually work in a more regular process where you invite the actor to read a script, do research, work on the character and prepare some kind of background – this time, I didn’t show them the script, I gave them the scenes we would do every day in the morning so they could work with it.
When they have their interrogation with Father Garcia, I would give them the scene the day before because they were too long so they would have to memorise a lot of text. It was an interesting exercise, because, first of all, you can only do it with people who you really trust and vice versa. It happens because almost every actor in the movie I’ve been working with them for many years already, so we can do that. Also, at the same time, you can do it thanks to the fact they are wonderful actors and so when we were shooting, they would completely lost; they didn’t know the characters.
They had a very general idea of what we were doing so that would create the necessity of the performance that they would have to be in a combination of presence and present; to be there while it is happening and we would capture that with the camera. But that kind of performance would be interesting to me as it is the kind of performance where you could only feel that they don’t really know where they are, and they were really able to control it like good actors, and we can feel that. Now that you know it, when you see the movie again, you will realise that once you see it with a regular audience, you will feel that these guys are in this unknown human space and that creates a lot of mystery, which works.
Q: We are aware of victims, but the film never passes judgement and also exposes the nuances of all of these scandals, where it is not necessarily someone doing something wrong, maybe it is because of how they feel is still taboo i.e. homosexuality. It is not a film that imposes moral; we don’t condemn them as characters. Why did you do it that way?
A: It’s not my job to inform people about what is going on and to create a judgement, to avoid or stop something – I don’t have that kind of conscience. I am not saying that I am an irresponsible bastard, it’s not what we do. What I tried to do is find that humanity that they have, and you do it out of compassion, that is the key, otherwise you will be looking to a docudrama or news reportage where someone did this and that, it’s really unnecessary.
There has already been made by other people and why would you try to judge them, that is the audience is there. I think it is more interesting as a cinematic exercise that you are just showing that is open and the audience will note it down. It is better, more interesting when you have an active audience that is getting the message and through their own biography or perspective, you make it happen.
For example, if you think about the victim, I did a lot of research, I talked to a lot of victims, and when you talk to them, some of them – especially those who were systemically abused for multiple years – is people who lost any kind of fear or self-protection to talk about, so when you ask them what happened, he would go until a very graphic way – there would be very specific, very graphic – with no problems, I couldn’t believe it when I was listening. so we decided to have a character that someone is really saying what we say.
As my first reaction as a filmmaker was to film it – this is not a radio show, so you would need to create images to support what you are saying – but then, specifically with this subject, I thought it was more interesting just to have the victim express in a very graphic way so the audience will create that image in their own minds, and that image is always more violent and more disturbing than the one I could make. I make the one that, for me, but it would not be the one you could create in your own mind so you are dealing with people’s morality, self-conscience and imagination, and that go a lot darker than what I can do. there is nothing more dangerous than the human mind so you use that and work with it.
Q: Do you want to show the priests as victims to a brutal system?
A: Again, I didn’t make a move to say who’d bad and who’s right. I just tried to show an environment where everybody could be a victim of something and could go to be the criminal. When you go there, I think it is more interesting because you’re not setting up a moral statement; why would I do it if everybody has one, it would be boring. I don’t like those movies where they tell you everything, over-expose everything; it’s annoying.
Why would you want to watch this – this is what I wonder when I see that kind of movie. Why would I want to watch something at the cinema that is already cooked; I want to cook it myself; I want to be part of the process and that’s what I tried to do. What happens that if you are dealing with elements like desire and talking to people who choose a life where desire is repressed, that desire is going to come out somehow and there are multiple ways how that’ll happen. It will always happen; that’s humanity. They think it is possible to give it to God or something, but that’s humanity and it explodes and sometimes it explodes in your face.
Q: Regarding the symbolism in the film; the location is set by the beach where the water could be seen as washing away the sins of the priests. Was the symbolism an important part in the creative process?
A: For me, this house is somehow a prison and it’s in an open space, with no locks, keys or doors. You can always leave but nobody dares to. It is also interesting to me because it’s a place where you can really feel very claustrophobic but at the same time, it’s close to the most open space on Earth, which is the ocean. It’s a type of claustrophobia in a very open space so that means that the real claustrophobia is very psychological and not as connected to confined spaces.
Q: The society of Chile and Latin America has opened in the last 20 years, and has opened a new era of dictatorship and critical thought. Do your films mirror this opening up Chilean and Latin American democracy and what is the remaining taboos?
A: It is hard for me to make that kind of analysis. I just do the movies that make me feel good and the things I’m interested in. I don’t have a political commitment, I don’t want to change anything. I just want to observe it. In a way, as a filmmaker, I’m a little irresponsible; I feel somehow that I’m a keeper of a bomb. I don’t know what to do with it, I just have it in my hand. You could probably analyse that from a distance, it’s hard to do it when you’re in the middle of the situation so it’s easier to have someone else to do that.
The Club is out in UK cinemas on 25th March.
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