in conversation with Pablo Larraín
How do you depict religious abuse and guilt in the aesthetic context of cinema? Director Pablo Larraín talks to four by three about his latest film The Club, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Berlinale 2015, the ethical complexity of theological rationale, the responsibility of filmmakers and the violence of our own consciousness.
Pablo Larraín’s The Club has won him the Grand Jury Prize at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. A tale of an exiled group of Catholic priests serving their spiritual punishment for accusations of abuse, they find themselves removed from their home and now trapped in a chamber drama in a small coastal town in Chile. Set in this clandestine retirement home, a place intended for prayer and penance, absolution or forgiveness aren’t easily found. Silenced by the Church, for these lost priests faith remains a garden of Eden in spite of their oppressed liberties.
The tranquil existence of these four priests and a nun is interrupted by an unsettling arrival of a fifth priest, which in turn attracts the attention of a young fisherman, who is shouting outside their house in graphic ways about the sexual harassment and humiliation he experienced as a young boy. The group is subsequently joined by Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), a crisis counselor and spiritual director sent by the Church to investigate and rectify the damage. What follows is a striking series of interrogation scenes between Garcia and the priests, illustrating just how unnerving and unfamiliar theological reasoning can be.
Whereas Larraín’s previous three films explored military dictatorships, his fifth feature centers on these damaged souls, stitching together psychologically and ethically complex questions of abuse, blame and guilt, while delaying and refraining from judgment. Writer-director Pablo Larraín’s voice is at its most masterful yet, layering complex political, ethical and aesthetic dimensions without offering the audience no easy resolutions of redemption to cling on to. This is further accentuated by Sergio Armstrong cinematographic use of a grey-washed colour palette, depicting a world, which is hard to deceiver and grounded in the liminal space of ethical ambiguity.
What prompted you to create a film about a topic that is so complex, delicate and provocative?
Pablo Larraín: It’s a combination of several elements. First of all, I was raised Catholic; I went to a Catholic school and to confession many times. Through that I met a lot of priests, some of whom were very respectable men, whilst others were very horrible. Several are even in jail now, have run into conflict with the justice system or have left to never be seen again. It was in part through this that I became interested in the priests that have vanished from the horizon.
Some years ago I came across a Chilean priest by the name of Cox, who was accused of sexual abuse. However, before he got trialed, he escaped the country and fled to the South of Germany where he lived in a beautiful house, which I saw a picture of in the newspaper. The image looked like a milk commercial, as the house was set in the mountains amidst beautiful fields. I was simply haunted by this story, this striking image and, you are right, by it’s very sensitive and provocative topic.
Self-deception is an interesting trope in The Club, which comes through during the individual interrogation scenes, particularly through the way, in which the priests recount their past and their reasons for being put out of sight from the Vatican. Are they speaking the truth, or do they lie to themselves to legitimise their crimes, as they seem to continually oscillate between denying and defending?
PL: Have you ever read about a priest admitting to his crimes? Well, I haven’t, and believe me, we did extensive research into this. They just don’t do it - under any circumstances, which is just incredible! I don’t want to judge it, but it is incredibly interesting dramatic material to work with. For someone to be able to always look the other way or, as in most cases, construct a very sophisticated theological problem out of a simple accusation is remarkable. So, instead of admitting it or saying ‘no, I actually didn’t do it’, they would just manipulate you through presenting intricate ethical and theological circumstances, ideas and concepts. At times you don’t even know what they are talking about, as no one is admitting to anything. You end up with a conversation, which doesn’t follow any logic you are familiar with. It’s almost as though their reasoning is based on a different frame of reference or an entirely different system!
To me this also boils down to a question concerning guilt. The members of the Catholic Church seem to believe that they can’t be judged by human eyes. But as soon as it someone from their own ranks, such as a fellow priest, they need to worry, as they can be judged by the eyes of god. So, when you are in that position, it becomes a question of impunity and the structure of power. It could be military impunity, as I have thematised in some of my other films, or political impunity, but here I am dealing with a religious or mystical type of impunity. You are getting yourself into a space, which is so open, so wide and so unknown, just like the house in The Club - it can be very claustrophobic, but it is also next to the sea, which is the open space that exists around it. As Michel Foucault already said, you are the prisoner in the most open space. And when we cut through that and deliver it in the form of a film, we are getting at something essential.
One might say that there is a certain absence of passing judgement on your side as a director. You don’t demonise your characters, but are you actually sympathising with them? Would you go as far as expecting your audience to feel empathy for your characters?
PL: I look at them with compassion, but it’s hard to argue about the audience’s reaction. Even though I try to create a particular atmosphere and tone it’s still very difficult to predict what that would mean on an emotional level for the audience. This is actually fascinating to me, because even though I have a clear idea of what the problem is, I have no idea what the solution for that would be. Cinema is a place where you can be very responsible. But I don’t want to be responsible. I think that we as directors are like kids with bombs.
I just happened to discover that there is an interesting opportunity to play with the notion of guilt with this material, while also talking and listening to the victims of these crimes. I did meet some victims and they were people telling you what happened to them in very graphic ways, just as matter of factly as you would describe how you make a cake. They had been abused for so long that they had gotten to a point where they became unsure about whether or not it was actually wrong. That is obviously another ethical dimension to this film. The moral perception of a victim is simply impossible to understand, unless you have experienced it yourself. It’s like being a father, which is impossible to make intelligible to someone else, if you haven’t had children yourself.
When we started with the scenes, in which the actors recount the abuse in the same graphic manner as the victims we met, it seemed at first too violent, when in fact it wasn’t, as I have come to realise. It is just a description of something. But what is very violent, is the audience, who is creating the matching images in their minds. There is nothing more violent than human consciousness and imagination. If I would have shot those scenes of abuse, it would have never been as violent as the image you create yourself. That is why this film seems to be that violent, it’s because the audience thinks it into being. At the end, The Club is a film, which requires an active audience, so as to complete it.
The film is aesthetically and stylistically striking in its colour palette and framing. What is it that you wanted to achieve with the visual rendering of the narrative? And what is the relation between the ethics and aesthetics in the film?
PL: I couldn’t have made a movie about this subject that looked any other way. Even though films are made of stories, they are also made of a particular tone and atmosphere, which is the most psychological or subconscious tool you have available as a filmmaker. So we were looking for a tone and visual aesthetics that would deliver the story that we thought would be most suitable.
The quote preceding the film ‘God saw the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness’, is taken from from Genesis 1:4. This quote not only expresses the theological idea that every human being has to chose between light and darkness, but is also a comment on how we wanted to represent the film’s subject matter. We intended to create a thematic and visual grayscale, so as to throw the stark contrast between light and darkness into doubt. And when you create that doubt people do end up feeling very uncomfortable, because they want to be told what’s right and what’s wrong. But if you don’t do this people feel confused, which is to me a necessity if you’re making a film about ethics and religion.
There is a striking similarity between the opening and the closing of the film, which points towards a circularity of the narrative and maybe even a circularity of abuse, of guilt, of redemption, of the Church’s power, of human life and perhaps of something seemingly inevitable. Yet it appears as if you wanted to save your characters...
PL: The word redemption in cinema got so fucked up by American cinema - they really destroyed it. You have to be very careful every time you are thematizing redemption, as you are dealing with a cliche of a cliche or, worse even - an endless regression of cliches. There are natural cycles, like that of seasons and of human life, but then you have fabricated cycles of power. The church follows different cycles of its own making, which have a different speed and logic, as well as their own set of consequences for the people affected by them. What I hoped to do is to show that difference, without judgement, and to foreground its inherent friction on the screen.
Pablo Larraín is a Chilean writer-director. The Club is his fifth feature film and won him the Grand Jury Prize at Berlin International Film Festival 2015.