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Unfortunately, child abuse and the Catholic Church go hand in hand, with offenders rarely being punished. I went to a Catholic school, and years after I had left it was reported that one of the priests working there as a principal had in fact had sexual affairs with minors. It is an ugly, almost taboo subject to talk about, causing this film to be all the more courageous and confronting.
One thing is certain very soon into EL CLUB; Pope Francis and the Vatican would love to sweep this film under a rug, much like the estranged priests we meet. They live together in a secluded house and they are hidden from society; the hours that they are able to go outside are very limited. The home is run by a nun-turned-caretaker, and it functions as a sort of priest retirement home, with one clearly suffering from some sort of dementia. This though is a retirement home with a difference, as it is a house for priests with… certain skeletons lurking in their closet.
He is Sandoken, a troubled and bruised man who was obviously sexually abused as a child. More than once he describes what happened to him as a child, further testing the viewer. The new priest’s arrival and Sandoken’s outbursts stir the pot, as soon the priests find themselves being interrogated by someone hired by the caretaker as a ‘spiritual director’, who works for the church and wants to speak to everyone separately and truthfully.
These scenes make up about a third or a quarter of the movie, as each priest and the caretaker are interviewed. This man’s true mission is to have these priests confess to what they have done. These one-on-one talks are very deliberately filmed, as after each question is asked, we see an extreme facial close-up of the priest in question, emphasising the issues at hand, while at the same time soaking in the emotions that wash over the face of the character being interviewed.
The rules of the house change dramatically once this man enters the picture. Suddenly no alcohol is permitted, among other things. One of the priests owns a greyhound who he enters in races to bet on. It is an activity that all the men enjoy, but since this adviser has started poking his nose into their activities, he takes an interest in the greyhound; though not the sort of interest the priest would want. This ‘spiritual director’ doesn’t seem to understand the reason for keeping an animal, so he asks directly, why keep the dog? This man works for the church but is extremely passive aggressive in his actions and particularly in his words and questions.
Having been raised Catholic, going to a Catholic school, this film resonated with me in a way I wasn’t expecting. While I don’t consider myself religious anymore, I found myself immersed and being reminded of the real life horrors this film is based on, wishing that it could all stop, that priests’ records could become public.
Guilt and secrecy are the main themes here, with EL CLUB serving as a portrayal of priests with reasons to hide certain acts. The ‘spiritual director’ only wants them to confess, he doesn’t really want to dig up their secrets. He is after all a man of the church. However, each priest is hesitant. This theme runs parallel with real life, as priests who have committed sins of this nature want them buried and forgotten about, rather than confessing. Ironic, considering part of their day-job is to listen to confessions.
That these priests have been sent to a remote house rather than remaining in the public eye also mirrors reality, as again the church would rather forget these issues ever occurred rather that revealing the truth.
This movie was made in Chile, and the events depicted were no doubt influenced by local issues: a man who was known to at least be involved in pedophile behaviour was assigned as bishop for Chile’s armed forces, by the Pope himself. This caused an unprecedented level of outrage and protests by victims of abuse. All these people are represented in the character of Sandoken, broken and confused, unable to find direction. A bit like the hierarchy of the Catholic Church really, but that is a story for another day, and a long one at that. A heavy watch then, but one gets the sense that it was a film that needed to be made. Avoid this if you’re not ready for a very heavy drama.
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