By Christopher Sharrett.
Some months ago I published in this location brief remarks on Pablo Larraín’s remarkable film Jackie (2016), one of the most compelling works of its season. The film had me going back, revisiting Larraín’s other work, which resulted in my present view that he is in the front rank of current filmmakers.
At the time of Jackie’s premiere, the dominant question in the public chatter was “why Pablo Larraín?” Why did this Chilean filmmaker, known for his conscientious meditations on the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected President Salvador Allende, choose a project about the Kennedy assassination and its effect on the widow? The project wasn’t in fact Larraín’s, but that of screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, so Jackie was essentially work-for-hire, presided over by producers like Darren Aronofsky, a director of considerable merit on occasion (I’ve commented here about his recent maligned film Mother!). There is nothing wrong with this, of course – we have, perhaps, become used to such a strict definition of auteurism we forget that the great Hollywood directors were almost always collaborators on contract.
The choice of Larraín makes sense when we consider the morbidity of Jackie, a morbidity “imported,” in a sense, from the Chile films, especially the “No to Pinochet” trilogy about the 1973 coup: Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010), and No (2012), two of which I want to look at briefly, along with The Club (2015), to my mind his most important film to date. First, when I speak of Larraín’s morbidity I am not being derisive; the tone seems to me entirely appropriate to his vision, and appropriate to the organicism of his art.
Jackie, like the Chile/Pinochet films, involves deception, and the creation of a false history. The film doesn’t go into the politics of the Kennedy assassination, about which there has been constant and necessary argument from the moment it happened. That Larraín doesn’t take on the topic is regrettable, since we now live in an Orwellian situation relative to that crime. One can take one’s pick as to the truth: the 1964 Warren Commission, appointed by President Johnson, concluded that it had “found no evidence” (lawyer’s language) of a plot to kill Kennedy. On the other hand, the 1979 House Select Committee of the U.S. Congress, concluded that a conspiracy in the Kennedy matter (and that of Martin Luther King) was “highly probable,” although no one was named, much less prosecuted. This seems like fertile ground for Larraín, but perhaps he thought it well-trod; he instead pursues the legacy of the Kennedy murder by examining the perceptions of his widow, Jackie, whose first concern is image. She recounts events to a Life magazine writer (in fact it is Theodore H. White, the Kennedy court painter unnamed here) as she sees fit. She says things like “I don’t smoke,” as she sits puffing away. She tells people that she has no clear memory of the event, but later tells an aid she remembers it all – we then see the gory explosion of Kennedy’s skull. The point is clear, even if Larraín stays away from the issue of the guilty. We live in a world of deception, one necessary to protect the required veneers of power, which need to be readjusted to suit a given moment.
Jackie is deliberately grim, opaque, unsettling, at times recalling Last Year at Marienbad (1961), particularly when Jackie and an aged – and apparently addled – priest (John Hurt) stroll down a long, tree-lined lane, whose geometric, rigid sense of perspective falls away at the vanishing point. Since the priest insists that “God is everywhere,” the widow asks if He was present in the bullet that killed her husband, the answer being “Yes, of course!” At times we enter the absurd, sometimes prompted by grief and shock: Jackie asks a Secret Service man for the caliber of the bullet that smashed her husband’s head. At other times, absurdity flows from the cruelty of the world. Jackie asks her priest if he is listening to her. He answers” “Yes, I think so.” The world of this film is overcast, sometimes pouring rain, reminding us that there was no romance in the 1960s, certainly not the early years, which seem more of the 50s. The blood shed by Civil Rights activists is nowhere to be seen; instead, we are given this atmosphere of failure and depression. The minimalist, modernist score by Mica Levi, like Larraín’s use of music elsewhere, adds to the sense of desolation. One can say that Jackie is a political film in the broadest sense. It points to deception – especially self-deception, as part of the everyday, necessary to sustain atrocious political systems, the topic of his Pinochet films.
Unlike the superb documentaries and meditations of Patricio Guzman, by far the most important chronicler of the Pinochet coup and its aftermath, Larraín looks, in Tony Manero, the first film of the Pinochet trilogy, for metaphor, and the apparently quotidian ills in the society that saw the arrival of Pinochet, specifically, the ambitions of a (psychotic) aspiring celebrity impersonator, Raul Peralta, played by the superb Alfredo Castro, the mainstay actor of Larraín’s troupe. At my first screening of this film, I thought Raul to be an inadequate sign for the devastation of the coup; more important, the CIA had a significant role in imposing Pinochet on the Chilean people, as they murdered the democratically elected President Salvador Allende and destroyed his government. The coup was by no means merely a matter of internal problems, so using this strange, murderous man as an emblem of the period seemed unreasonable. And the observation of “cultural imperialism,” embodied in Raul’s fixation on Saturday Night Fever (1977), seemed too familiar. Repeated viewing changed my valuation significantly.
The American pop culture that appears, often unobtrusively, is a signifier of decay, a notable feature of the film’s mise-en-scene. Grubbiness saturates Santiago, indoors and out, captured unsparingly by Sergio Armstrong’s camera. Dull browns and sickly greens are basic to the film’s palette, supplementing the sense of enclosure central to the narrow, ancient streets and stone buildings, which appear wholly inhospitable, defying the notion that Santiago is, with Buenos Aires, the most “cosmopolitan” city of Latin America. Here and there is a façade painted a bright primary color that seems inappropriate, but of a piece with the deathly cityscape. As Raul makes his way through vast storerooms (in search of stage props for his Tony Manero/John Travolta act), over piles of dirt, across rooftops, and into the burrow that is his rooming house, one’s impression is that Chile is a polluted land, one whose poisoning owes much to the American presence. As Raul pursues his hobby – which, like all hobbies propelled by the culture industry, becomes obsessive – the consequences of the coup appear around him, as people are arrested and killed, no more than a nuisance to this self-involved little man.
We become aware of a culture’s utter fixation on waste, specifically celebrity impersonation, which may be the clearest marker of “simulacra,” much-discussed during the postmodernism debate of the 1980s and 90s. As Raul waits outside of a TV studio for his turn to sign on to the impersonation show, he learns he confused the dates; a producer (Antonia Zegers, Larraín’s wife and another key member of his troupe) tells him he came during Chuck Norris night. When he feels despondent, Raul goes to an ugly, outdated neighborhood theater that appears to have institutionalized Saturday Night Fever, sitting alone, repeating the banal John Travolta dialogue as if it were a liturgy. When he arrives one day to see that the film has been replaced by Grease, Raul goes on a small rampage, bashing the skull of the projectionist – and apparently his wife, off camera – then stealing the canisters of Fever not yet returned to the distributor.
Raul’s first murder occurs early, after he helps an elderly woman to her upstairs apartment after she was mugged by hooligans. Raul sits with the woman briefly as they watch television. Pinochet is delivering a speech. The woman comments on Pinochet’s “blue eyes,” suggesting, to her, Pinochet’s ethnicity. Raul bashes her skull and steals her television. He isn’t interested in the woman’s observations; he is merely a predator. One can say that American culture has polluted and deformed this world, but exactly how? American pop culture, in Larraín’s worldview, seems merely to play to the innate stupidity of a people, to drive a population backward, as this false culture appeals also to an innate sociopathy. In other words, it drives the nation toward fascism, much in the way the Trump appeal currently drives the US.
One needs to revisit Saturday Night Fever when viewing Larraín’s work. The film is interesting mainly at the symptomatic level, the kind of rubbish Hollywood began to produce after the very fertile 1960s and early 70s. By the late 70s, the retrenchment that prepared the way for the Reagan years took hold (for this, the definitive sources will always be Robin Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond [2003, 1986], and Andrew Britton’s pivotal essay “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment,” in Britton on Film ). One could say that in Saturday Night Fever, the Travolta character “learns his lesson,” insofar as he is capable of learning anything, but this is hardly the film’s main interest. One can also say that the film is merely a showcase for the disco fad of the period, surely one of the indicators of the corporatization of rock music from its relatively political role in previous decades (I have lost touch with current pop music; what I do hear seems to me without merit at any level, but I may be an old fogey). The film spends much time observing the utterly awful parochial culture of the New York outer boroughs, something familiar to many of us who have lived in or around the American east coast. For others, the film might be interesting from an ethnographic standpoint, if one can stand it, and assume it has some authenticity.
To a large extent, one can say that Tony Manero merely copies Saturday Night Fever; the latter has us watch Travolta’s preening in the mirror, his fetishistic trying-on of clothes, his affected strut down a ramshackle Brooklyn street to the famous Bee-Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” tune that became a mainstay of the genre, assuring us that this group had nothing more to offer. The two films share a view of cultural banality, with Manero taking us to Arendt’s formula regarding the connection of evil to the banal. Preening narcissism is as central to Raul as to Travolta’s Tony, although we are asked to believe that Tony’s propensities for violence are nowhere near Raul’s, despite Saturday Night’s fundamental assumptions; standard macho violence is revealed as profound anti-social pathology.
There are some moments in Tony Manero that remind us about the limits of liberation, or, rather, how sexual freedom can be deformed in a social system under tyranny, a topic studied long ago by Pasolini. Raul and a woman named Cony (Amparo Noguero) live in close quarters with Cony’s teenaged daughter; their room is upstairs in the dirty building whose first floor has the café and ramshackle disco stage. At one moment, Cony fellates Raul to no effect – he cannot achieve an erection. Later, Raul rubs his body against the daughter. Raul collapses as the daughter masturbates with a vengeance (we hear the moisture of her vulva), as if in retaliation against Raul. The camera focuses on his face in repose; it is nearly a death mask, yet conveying anger, and the scheming to follow, such as when a rival visits the rooming house, placing his own white Tony Manero suit upstairs. Raul secretly defecates on the suit, smearing the feces about, then quietly making a rooftop escape as secret police arrest people in the house for political subterfuge. The relation to Pasolini is relevant; shit is the end product not just of a society mistaking industrial food for food, but a society whose culture is now eminently disposable. These moments convey the pandemic nature of psychopathology, its close connection to the standard obsessions and diversions of the petty bourgeoisie, as people ignore the horrors around them to embrace the absolutely irrelevant, and, in fact, what is highly diseased.
For all the time Raul takes preparing his John Travolta act (he is a wretchedly bad dancer and decidedly homely, for all his playing with his greasy pompadour, convinced, as he tells the TV secretary, that he is Tony Manero), he comes in second. He waits outside the TV studio as the winner and his girlfriend exit. Tony watches as they climb on a bus; he follows and sits behind them. What new atrocities will take place? It is enough to know that Raul, the culture industry, and the Nixons and Pinochets they serve are a constant.
Post Mortem (2015) has been referred to as a kind of sequel to Tony Manero. It is, chiefly because the important backdrop is the Pinochet coup, which has a more pointed importance here even than in the earlier film. Post Mortem’s image differs, however, from that of Tony Manero, since Sergio Armstrong adapts Russian LOMO lenses, long associated with the extraordinary image-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, giving the film a very wide image while the color palette becomes even bleaker than that of the previous film.
The coup more central to this film than it is to Tony Manero, the first image showing the undercarriage of a half-track (half tank, half truck) as it rattles down a street littered with all sorts of debris, much of it glass and metal – the destruction has been major. The camera’s eye follows the vehicle’s belly at pavement level, introducing a sense of defeat and degradation. We are meet Mario Cornejo, another role for the extraordinary Alfredo Castro; although this character is close to Raul Peralta – he is morose, with stringier hair, but even more corpse-like than Raul – Mario takes us into a post-coup world that is even more moribund than that of the obsessive and indulgent Raul; personal obsession returns as a theme of Post Mortem.
Mario is an assistant to the Santiago city coroner, a Marxist who chants “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh” with fellow doctors at lunch, although these bourgeois men seem entirely ineffectual politically. Mario is removed from anything political (one could say anything authentically human), a figure based on a real-life person discovered by Larraín in the files of the Pinochet era. Mario would seem to be a voyeur, fixated on Nancy (Antonia Zegers, in another role for which she deserves the international recognition not yet hers), a neighbor across the street. She is a Bim Bam Bum dancer – a more lurid form of Can-Can – whose body is oddly emaciated, her skinniness apparent mainly in her thorax, which she exposes to Mario. Is she anorexic, or starved by her belligerent boss, or an emblem of the awful historical era? Everything applies. Mario’s voyeurism doesn’t take us into Rear Window territory, although the themes of that film, as well as those of Vertigo, are instructive to a degree. Mario introduces himself to Nancy, takes her to dinner, asks the bemused but sophisticated woman to “be [his] girlfriend.” Meanwhile, another morgue assistant, Sandra (Amparo Noguera) shows interest in Mario, sensing – wrongly – a soul as lonely as she.
Mario visits the grimy Bim Bam Bum show, where the manager’s wife complains of the semen on the backs of seats, and a mediocre comedian tells dirty jokes as part of the warm-up act. The atmosphere is even bleaker than that of Tony Manero, with Larraín using the asocial Mario and his world to suggest the draining-away of human qualities after the coup, while the seedier, more parasitical forms of capitalism carry on, and the pathologies of patriarchal civilization become more deformed.
Sexual politics become unhealthily tangled with politics of the coup era. Nancy’s father and brother are activists, but Nancy is removed, feigning interest in Marxism as a way of staying close to her handsome boyfriend Victor (Marcelo Alonso, another notable actor of Larraín’s troupe whose role in The Club is shattering). Authenticity is an issue here, as it is with Mario’s obsession with Nancy. Her sex act with Mario is a convenient orgasm (we see her in close shot during intercourse, Mario largely irrelevant to her sexual experience). Mario makes the two of them a fried egg in a small pan, a meal he repeats toward the end of the film – in both moments, the egg looks repulsive, like the entire mise-en-scene. After eating, Mario and Nancy burst into tears. For the same reasons? Surely their states in life are almost equally miserable, but Mario is mostly a closed book, strangled by his fixations, that is if we assume he has any authentic affect. Narcissism may be his chief characteristic.
As in Vertigo, Mario’s fixation on Nancy is based on fantasy, and on his commitment to filter her image through her Bim Bam Bum presentation, a male-oriented titillation making Mario little different from the overall male audience. He visits Nancy in her dressing room as nude and semi-nude women prepare for the next show (one can’t help, at this moment, to think of Donald Trump’s intrusions on his hideous Miss America dressing rooms, although Mario, unlike Trump, owns nothing – he intrudes on the nude women simply because he thinks his privilege is taken). His sex life involves typical voyeurism, fetishism, and control of the female, if only in the poisoned realm of imagination; he cannot not connect with the less glamorous but more feeling (and independent, if fragile) Sandra.
As the morgue piles up with corpses in the immediate aftermath of the coup, Sandra becomes appalled. Mario offering no consolation, or even awareness of the extent of the horrors, so preoccupied is he with his perverse inner life – he spurns Sandra also because he knows she has had intercourse with other men (as if Nancy hasn’t?), taking us to the virgin/whore territory of much Western art.
The film goes into the heart of darkness, in one of the most chilling scenes of this century’s cinema (thus far), as the pathologist, Sandra, and Mario perform an autopsy on a dead man whose presence casts a special pall over the moment. He wears a very bloody suit. His face is distorted beyond recognition, the top of his head blown off. The room is crowded with military men, some wearing surgical masks to block the stench of the place. We see them, but just barely; their green uniforms just standing out in the darkness of the operating theater; they remain in soft focus within the dread of the medical surroundings. Mario is assigned the job of recording the doctor’s findings on a manual typewriter he can barely operate, the moment accenting his very limited skills at anything (like frying an egg). Sandra is asked by the doctor to perform an incision – she passes the blade to the doctor and walks away in tears. The doctor makes some cursory remarks before stating the obvious: the man has been killed by gunfire to the head at close range. The doctor pulls a purple sheet (a sign of penance?) over the body and tells us that the deceased is “Salvador Allende Gossens,” the socialist President of Chile and the chief target of the coup. We have entered the final circle of hell. As bodies pile higher, clogging stairwells, Sandra starts to scream. She is quickly shot in the head by the officer who has taken charge of the morgue. Mario retains his deadpan stare. Much has been written about the “death of affect” in the postmodern era, with the assumption that capitalist alienation is no big deal, or that no affect is actually needed for us to deal with the age of computers, mass media and the like. Here, emotions are annihilated in a way familiar long before the postmodern discussion: atrocities make us dead inside, which is perhaps preferable to being shot for revealing emotions that form a kind of protest.
At Mario’s home, Nancy and her boyfriend Victor have hidden in an alcove in a wall behind Mario’s apartment building. He brings her food and utensils, but, at last, seals the alcove, blocking it with a pile of heavy furniture. Mario has his way; Nancy, who has never returned his bizarre affection, is buried alive for her treachery. The moment is important as we recall the stone walls of Santiago, with their many deep perforations, in this film and Tony Manero. In bizarre horror-film perversity, the Pinochet mob buried some of their victims within these walls (cf. the Costa-Gavras film Missing ), as well as in streets, fields, deserts, the sea. Larraín associates Mario’s savagery with the Pinochet regime. But while Mario’s violence is represented as an everyday, taken-for-granted sort, like that of Raul in the earlier film, there are distinctions. Raul is a parasite whose evil is involved wholly in his own satisfactions, as a crisis unfolds around him. Mario, on the other hand, represents, to an extent, Scotty (although of a less alluring, baroque quality) in Vertigo, the arrogance of patriarchal rule, its insistence on having things a certain way, its craven willingness to stand by as terror unfolds since, ultimately, he will benefit from the new order – he even helps it take its seat. In Vertigo, the new order, in the form of the Cold War, has already arrived, but Scotty’s survival, given what he has done, suggests greater oppression to come. And can’t we argue that Scotty helped Judy/Madeleine to fall from the tower, the fall a transfer of his disease to her? Can we imagine Scotty actually killing Madeleine outright for disturbing his fantasies?
I will skip over Fuga, Larraín’s first film, No, the last part of the Pinochet Trilogy, and Neruda, the film he made almost simultaneous with Jackie. Fuga, Larraín’s first film, explores the relationship of classical music and its achievements to psychopathology and commerce, an area central to the work of Michael Haneke. The film needs my revisiting, and more extensive investigation than these notes will allow. No seems to me important, yet the least satisfactory of the Pinochet films, mainly because its premise is rather basic to media studies: advertising has an enormous role in postmodern politics, and is of course mercenary enough to support left or right – still, I don’t want to trivialize this film. Neruda, made almost simultaneously it seems with Jackie, is a magical realist approach to this most important poet of Latin America, and, again, will have to await a fuller discussion.
The Club seems to be Larraín’s most fully-realized film to date, its subject matter topical yet very expansive. There has been a spate of exposes of the Catholic Church in recent years, including crusading journalist films like the compelling Spotlight (2015), but I can’t think of a work as important to the topic as The Club, mainly because it develops a critique of power in all of its forms, making us aware that power’s main ally is secrecy and lies.
The story’s location is an unprepossessing yet sinister yellow two-story stucco house on Chile’s rocky coastline. The house is part of a small town, yet not of it, perched as it is on a jagged terrace so that one can see it when approaching the town, even though the house is some distance beyond. It might be considered a Terrible House of the fantastic cinema, and the atmosphere of the film is certainly gothic enough to justify the comparison. The mise-en-scene is enhanced once again by Sergio Armstrong’s LOMO lenses, although here the image verges on soft-focus – the liner essay for the film’s Blu-ray release says one gets the sense of watching the film “through cataracts.” This is a bit of an exaggeration, but the image conveys a morbid opacity different from Larraín’s earlier films about the coup era; Larraín keeps us at a bit of a distance, emphasizing the narrative as nightmare by refusing digital hard focus and forcing foreground, mid-ground, and background to merge. The film opens at dawn, but dawns seem no different from sunsets, and the sky seems consistently overcast. Even more than Tony Manero and Post Mortem, The Club transmits approaching doomsday.
The yellow house is a kind of safe house for four priests and a nun, Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers), their caregiving supervisor. The priests are all criminals, tucked away from the prying eyes of the secular world, and Catholics for whom these men are an embarrassment. The crime that stands out is the pervasive one that has finally reached public discourse: pedophilia, represented by Father Vidal (again, the gifted Alfredo Castro). But that crime isn’t isolated. One priest, Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic) is a kidnapper of young, poor children who are sold to the rich. Another priest, Father Silva ( Jaime Vadell) was a long-term army chaplain, a confessor to the ranks of men guilty of untold atrocities during the Pinochet years. Interestingly, Silva may be the most representative criminal priest – he is worried not about the danger of assassination by his own, since he is sitting on many secrets, but rather the scrutiny of the secular world, especially the “liberals” who have no sympathy for the church. One of the film’s key issues is Vatican contempt for secular authority in any form. Yet another priest, Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking) is so far gone mentally he tends to repeat whatever has been last said by anyone, including every crime – is he merely an elderly mimic or did he, in fact, carry out all these crimes? At one moment, he reveals some key information that is the prelude to the final act. This is crucial: Sister Monica later says that Ramirez was in the yellow house longer than most can remember (“in the 60s”), a sclerotic, deranged reminder of the church past and present, regardless of the Vatican regime in power.
The priests have a strict regimen, foremost of which is their avoidance of the townspeople. Their comings and goings are strictly monitored by Sister Monica, who has a perpetual rictus, suggesting the clergyperson who wants to “make nice” even under the most unpleasant circumstances – or a psychopath. We are not far into the film before that latter seems the only plausible analysis.
The group has limited activities, but they have a collective hobby: dog racing. They meet regularly to race their greyhound, Rayo, with other local competitors, Father Vidal, who has a special fondness for Rayo, following the races carefully with outsized field glasses.
All seems well until a shocking event: the arrival of a new priest, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza), a sad-eyed man with a long, wavy beard recalling those of Russian Orthodox priests. Moments after his arrival another man appears who calls himself Sandokan (Roberto Farias), the pirate-revolutionary of nineteenth-century pulp fiction whose adventures were brought to low-budget Italian cinema in the early-60s. Sandokan positions himself against the house’s retaining wall, and recites, as if a town crier, the sex crimes against children perpetrated by Lazcano. His recitation spares no graphic detail (“you must eat the glans and swallow the holy semen”). Sandokan is deranged, but it is impossible not to assume that his mental illness is the consequence of Lazcano’s repeated predation. Sister Monica goes outside in an attempt to quiet the man, who could, metaphorically at least, bring the house down. A hand appears in the frame, placing a revolver on a window sill. It is probably the hand of Silva, the ex-chaplain. It is an extraordinary moment; the priests pace back and forth, Larraín making use of the horizontal of the house’s first floor the way Tarkovsky did with the country house in The Sacrifice (1986). The men stalk the low-angle camera, but rather than be empowered by it, they reveal their steady unravelling. It they are not guilty of at least some of the same sex crimes, they are nevertheless criminals, guilty men cowering in the face of the innocent, demented accuser, a kind of chorus giving witness to the past.
Lazcano walks outside, pistol in hand, but instead of shooting Sandokan he blows his own brains out, setting in motion the rest of the film’s events, beginning with the arrival of Vatican-sponsored investigator Father Garcia, played by the riveting Marcelo Alonzo, the long-haired, handsome activist in Post Mortem, here a tall, gaunt man with close-cropped hair and beard – and penetrating dark eyes. He is quickly termed a suspect priest of the “new church” (certainly a near-dead topic by the late 1970s), forward-looking and reasonably progressive-minded, but his role here is one of inquisitor, proposing that the new regime is the same as the old. He is immediately a suspect figure in the eyes of the yellow house residents. While they have their squabbles, they are of one mind in the reactionary views.
Garcia interviews each of the priests about the death of Lazcano; each man is deceptive, and attempts to turn Garcia into the guilty party. Vidal offers a bizarre argument about the near-transcendent quality of pedophilia, which he conflates with gay sex against the angry retort by Garcia. Garcia bears down on Father Ortega. Ortega smiles, telling Garcia that he has a cushy life, flying first class, buying duty-free cologne, never mixing with the poor. Garcia grins and nods, as if to win Ortega by acknowledging his perceptions. The moment is important in its comments on the Catholic priesthood; indeed, diocesan priests don’t take a vow of poverty, drive decent cars, and seldom do any first-hand charity work for the poor. So Garcia is representative of some of the Church’s institutional assumptions. When Garcia asks Ortega if he knows he is a criminal, Ortega chuckles, then gives in to a belly laugh, as if to say, “You’re asking me?”
Garcia, the priest of the “new Church,” finds in Sister Monica his greatest ally as he makes threats about closing down the house (presumably making the nun and priests fend for themselves, a hardly sensible scenario, but a feared threat). The alliance may ultimately stem from Garcia’s sense of Monica’s power and ruthlessness; she tells Garcia that he himself might be seen as complicit in hiding the facts of Lazcano’s murder – at least if hers becomes the official narrative. Both Garcia and Monica project considerable anger, Monica’s barely hidden by her frozen smile, Garcia by the contempt the others have for his considerable authority. Although Ortega says the yellow house “smells like shit,” they obviously feel well-ensconced and afraid of their secrets being disgorged. They fail to recognize that Garcia wants facts only to keep them hidden.
The senile Father Ramirez reveals to Garcia a key fact about the death of Lazcano, quietly tape-recorded. Garcia is convinced that Sandokan is “a problem,” to use Mafia jargon. Another problem is the defiance of Vidal, who senses that Garcia might be gay – his too-intimate prayer with Sandokan makes the point plausible. Garcia says that the house “isn’t a spa, but a place for prayer and repentance” (one can’t help but think that Garcia’s next stop en route to the Vatican is a spa), and that Vidal must give up his beloved dog Rayo.
The film’s final reel testifies to Larraín’s intelligence, as the horrors reach apocalyptic proportions, not in overwhelming catastrophe but in interactions of the characters of the narrative. Vidal makes friends with two surfers and their girlfriend, trying to be accepted as a “regular guy” within their group; he ends up offering them money to dispose of the Sandokan problem, unable as he is to read the morality of the free-living but quite sane young people; he is beaten for his trouble, since the kids are not only offended but have their own priest memories. Meanwhile, Sister Monica, at the behest of Father Garcia, conceives a more monstrous plot: she kills Rayo as Ortega and Silva kill the rival dogs of the neighborhood (presumably as cover for the first act), then contrive to have local toughs beat to death Sandokan. Garcia and Monica watch the beating. Afterword, Garcia thanks Monica, saying she isn’t need anymore “tonight.” The badly injured Sandokan survives, and is carried back to the yellow house by the apparently strong Garcia, where he will integrate with the criminal priests and nun. When Sandokan is asked his name he repeats “Sandokan,” the wretched man’s sign of rebellion – he is renamed, without ceremony, “Thomas,” a way of hiding him. Sandokan/Thomas tells Garcia of his need for a long list of psychotropic drugs if he is to function – one gets the idea that he was badly diagnosed, since the man hardly functions at the most basic levels – he was living with a homely but kind-hearted prostitute who looked after him, but leaves after being repelled by his need for anal fisting.
Garcia has the group sing a hymn quietly, as he takes his leave of the bunch in his well-appointed sedan, confident that the secrets will keep, repulsed by his errand – although not his own punitive and criminal actions. Of all the final moments, Vidal’s breakdown on finding the dead Rayo stands out; he is inconsolable. He sits as Monica rubs his shoulders and offers blandishments about God knowing all. She finally asks Vidal if he wants to kill her; totally dispirited and exhausted, he says “no.” When she asks, her ugly smile still in place, if he can forgive her, he says “no, motherfucker, no.” The moment emphasizes, for all his perversity, Vidal’s basic knowledge of the awfulness of the entire situation, of himself and the others.
The film is notable for its sense of its location’s emptiness and complete abandonment. Dogs prowl the empty night streets under unhealthy amber street lamps. Silences are notable, as in other Larraín films. There are still images of Silva resting, his elbow on the handle of a shovel, Vidal leaning back on the deck of a small fishing boat, Sandokan strolling, with his side-to-side wobbling gait, on the streets of the town at night, accosted by Vidal, who gives him one of his “transcendence of pedophilia” lectures that dissolves into sheer gibberish.
As significant as the silences are, the film is the first by Larraín to make notable use of music, including Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor BWV 1011: IV. Sarabande”; “First Suite for Cello, Op. 73,” by Benjamin Britten, and several works by the modernist Arvo Part, including “Fratres for String Quartet,” and the astounding “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for Strings and Bell,” in my mind Part’s most staggering achievement. The list might suggest a sense of disintegration, going from Bach’s serenity to the more dissonant modernism of Britten to the apocalyptic compositions of Part (it has always interested me that Polish and Eastern European composers write liturgical music that seem like horror film scores, with Penderecki the most notable example [his work was used extensively in Kubrick’s The Shining ); they offer the image of a powerful, Old Testament God who is fearsome and awful, not the nice carpenter and shepherd, or in the matter of Part’s “Cantus” and Penderecki’s “Kosmogonia,” an unfeeling but overwhelming void, like a creation by H.P. Lovecraft). The idea of the decay of the classics and the culture that produced them is undercut when we attend to real continuity: the dark chords of Bach, the ferocity of Britten (who borrows from Bach), and the Bach influence in Part’s apocalypticism. Indeed, we can argue that Larraín’s choices are ingenious; the sampled score gives us the sense that culture was perhaps always-already doomed, and certainly that the Catholic Church was a threat then as now: The Club, of course, isn’t the people of the yellow house, but the Church, whose values are perfectly embodied in the residents of the house.
Pablo Larraín is obviously worth searching out carefully, as one scans movie ads hoping to spot the name of a recognizable artist at a time when indeed the best cinema seems to come from other shores.
Christopher Sharrett teaches film studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.