The Club (2015, Pablo Larrain)

Not to be confused with The Clan or The Tribe or The Wolfpack. Movies need better titles.

My first Pablo Larraín movie, and it’s unusual. Not sure what I was expecting, maybe more Matteo Garrone-style. Has a hazy digital look with odd white balance and sometimes grotesque wide lenses, and tells an odd story about a house of recovery/isolation for problem priests.

Father Matías arrives with an exquisite beard, but has been followed there by Sandokan, whom he used to molest as a boy. Sandokan yells in front of the house until Father Matías walks outside and kills himself.

Newcomer Father Matías:

So Father Garcia is sent from the church to investigate, and probably to shut down the house and scatter its residents. The residents seem less concerned with him than with Sandokan, who is still hanging around town, so they stage a crime to pin on him, murdering their own and their neighbors’ racing dogs. Sandokan gets beaten up by an angry mob, and Father Garcia agrees to leave the house alone if they’ll take care of poor Sandokan.

Investigator Father Garcia:

I didn’t get this ending, really, but liked the actors’ beards and the general muddled atmosphere of the thing. Obviously don’t know what to make of Larraín at this point – need to watch more of his work. I thought he was one of our beloved international festival auteurs (his current Jackie is getting raves) until discovering so many negative reviews of this one. Checking online, I see that Sicinski has turned in a four-paragraph review of the other The Club (“a Master Lock for your steering wheel”) which is confusing the Letterboxd commenters.

Nick Pinkerton:

There are doubtless those who will prefer the smoldering indignity of Spotlight, ever so slightly tinctured for flavor with self-recrimination, to the moral murkiness of The Club … Shot by Larraín’s regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, The Club is overlaid with a milky haze … it gives the impression of an all-permeating damp fog, a dramatis personae who are half-ghost, and a setting that is somewhere between the Chilean seaside and Purgatory.


Looking up cast, Jaime Vadell must’ve played the oldest priest (nobody, including he, can remember his crimes) because he appeared in Ruiz’s Three Sad Tigers back in the 1960’s. Dog-killing ex-nun Sister Monica was Larraín regular Antonia Zegers, and dog trainer Vidal starred in and cowrote Tony Manero.


Larraín prefers to deal in his films with the low and middle classes, whom he strongly despises. If there’s a common thread running through his cinematographic output, it’s that the problem of contemporary Chilean society is not, as usually assumed, that it suffered a dictatorship for almost 20 years, during which time thousands of citizens were murdered, tortured, and disappeared, all kinds of censorship and repression was exerted, and people couldn’t leave their homes at night because of the curfew. No, for Larraín the true problem is that Chileans deserve their fate because they secretly liked to be humiliated and destroyed by the barbarians, as they thought that they were not strong enough to rebel against them.

Secret Sunshine (2007, Lee Chang-dong)

Indie-drama story of loss, as widow decides to live in hometown of her deceased husband. But then after rumors spread of her buying valuable property, her son is kidnapped for real estate money she doesn’t have, then he’s killed and we get a more traumatic story of loss and the indie-drama template goes off the rails. I wasn’t crazy about it but I appreciate its unique message – religion is crap and major trauma can’t be overcome in the span of a movie.

Do-yeon Jeon of the recent Housemaid remake won best actress at Cannes, and the great Kang-ho Song (the year after starring in The Host) plays a subdued local guy who’s interested in her, becomes a Christian when she starts attending church meetings and stays with the church even after it’s clear that she won’t be dating him and she turns against the church. It’s a good portrayal of despair, if that’s what you’re after.

D. Lim:

He has said that before he starts a movie, he always asks himself, “What is cinema for?” Secret Sunshine is a work of visceral emotions and abstract notions; a study of faith in all its power, strangeness, and cruelty; a look at the particularities of human nature and experience that account for the existence, perhaps even the inevitability, of religion — all of which is to say that it’s an attempt to depict the invisible in what is foremost a visual medium … Put simply, Secret Sunshine shows how religion uses us and how we use religion. A film about the lies we tell ourselves in order to live, it suggests that there may be no bigger lie than religion — but also acknowledges that sometimes lies are necessary.

Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy)

The very definition of a great ensemble cast, each character given similar tasks throughout the investigation but with different personal connections to the church and the case. Hulk Ruffalo and Michael “Birdman” Keaton are joined by Rachel “Passion” McAdams, John “Iron Man’s dad” Slattery and a gentle mustache named Brian James under new boss Liev “brother of Wolverine” Schreiber as reporters investigating a pattern of sexual abuse in the catholic church.

D. Ehrlich: “earns comparisons to Zodiac and All the President’s Men, but is also more modest and anonymous than either… less sticky. still, builds an immense momentum with its earnestness.”

M. D’Angelo: Thoroughly enjoyable, but the only aspect of it that wowed me was Liev Schreiber’s deliberately off-putting performance; I imagine McCarthy repeatedly telling him “Let’s try that again, but give me more absolutely nothing this time.”

M. Harris:

I know some people think that Tom McCarthy’s direction is utilitarian; I couldn’t disagree more. His steady medium shots and groupings of men (mostly men) in conversation in offices, behind overcrammed desks, in restaurants, clubs, doorframes, and well-appointed sanctuaries are not the product of lack of visual imagination but of serious thought about how best to tell a story of journalistic process and the uneasy co-functioning of big urban institutions (church, paper, courthouse). The empty weekend office in the film’s final sequence, with Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron at work in the distant background, has stayed with me as much as any shot from any movie this year.

Timbuktu (2014, Abderrahmane Sissako)

Took a van trip to Filmstreams and watched with Katy’s class. Set in Mali but shot in Mauritania, Sissako continues in his style of portraying a central character conflict (a murder over a dead cow) while frequently cutting away to daily life and smaller events in the surrounding town. In this case, the daily life segments involve their own, larger conflict: an invasion of the town by militant islamists attempting to impose their own laws. Inevitably these things collide as the invaders’ court decides to execute the herder who killed a fisherman, as well as the herder’s wife and another guy who seems to have simply given her a ride.

Promo screenshots stolen from Film Comment:

Wonders and horrors abound. An adulterous couple is buried then stoned to death. A Rooster Lady does inexplicable things. The local imam engages the invaders in futile discussion. Music and soccer and smoking are outlawed and punished with whippings, though the invaders are shown to be hypocrites in many of these cases, enjoying the same past times on the sly. Sissako makes them seem absurd, and could’ve made a comedy with some of the same material (a man is ordered to shorten his pants so he removes them; a jihadist can’t get through his propaganda video), but their frequent, meaningless acts of violence maintain an air of menace. As in Bamako he stages a song as an act of rebellion.

The movie keeps returning to the doomed herder and his beautiful family. Despite the repression and crime of the jihadists, it’s the herder Kidane’s murder of a fisherman who killed his prize cow which is shot as a cosmic event, ending with surely the greatest wide shot of the year as Kidane runs across the waist-deep water leaving a trail of silt, the mortally wounded fisherman struggling to his feet on the other side.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani shot Blue is the Warmest Color, which had a very different look. The only actor I think I’ve seen before is Fatoumata Diawara, a star of Genesis, as the lashed singer pictured above.

G. Kenny:

The really killing thing about all the conflict that tears this place and its people apart is how calm everyone is about it. Nobody raises his or her voices; nobody raises a hand in impulsive anger. Violence, when it occurs, is done in a very deliberate way. The jihadists need to conduct themselves “properly,” as this conveys their rectitude. But their stance only barely disguises their old-fashioned bullying. The treatment of women in particular is just misogyny with unconvincing window dressing. The jihadist who wants the young woman in marriage expects no argument; the girl is his right. And the fact that he asks for her politely, in the logic he lays out, only underscores his alleged right. It doesn’t matter anyway; if he is refused, he calmly states, “I’ll come again in a bad way.”

P. Labuza:

There is a critique here, and it is the failure of jidhadism as a cultural translator. This comes in literal form, as numerous scenes feature the jihadis having to work through translators to make their demands. … Numerous sequences feature characters simply trying to explain their point of view to one another, but the sides clearly aren’t listening. When one man confesses his deepest and most personal want to the jihadi leader, the leader asks his translator to stop. He knows that in order to continue his fight, he cannot listen. These jihadis only see prey.

The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

Great to watch this again in high-def. I remembered it being interesting, but not looking this spectacular. Morose knight (Max Von Sydow) and his charismatic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand of Winter Light, hard to adjust to him not being the morose one) are heading home through the plague-ridden country, accumulating other characters along the way. It’s both very serious about life and death and also full of jokes and lighter moments, so maybe the first Swedish horror comedy? Along the way, Jons has folksy/philosophical conversations with townsfolk, and the knight has religious/philosophical conversations with Death.

First, Jons rescues an intense, silent girl (Gunnel Lindblom: Sydow’s servant in Virgin Spring, his wife in Winter Light) from a dangerous thief. “I’m a married man, but with any luck my wife is dead by now, so I’ll be needing a housekeeper.” Then they come across actor/jester Jof (Nils Poppe of The Devil’s Eye) with his wife Bibi Andersson, sexy maid in The Magician), who’ve just been ditched by their more serious companion Jonas and need protection. Jonas has stolen the blacksmith’s wife (Inga Gill of Miss Julie), but the smith (Ake Fridell, Monika‘s dad) gets her back and Jonas wanders off to meet Death.

It’s been established that jester Jof can see spirits, so he’s the only one who realizes that the knight’s solo chess games are actually with Death, and that the knight is losing, so he escapes with his wife. The rest of the gang continues to the knight’s castle where his wife Karin (Inga Landgre, recently in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Remake) is waiting. The six of them are just having dinner when Death catches up, and out in a field with their young son, Jof sees Death leading them all away.

Peter Cowie calls the actors “medieval ancestors of those troubadours, those traveling musicians who are still so popular in Scandinavia today.” I’ve meant to ask Trevor how often he runs across troubadours. Cowie also calls this “the high point of Bergman’s symbolic period.” I’m pretty sure the sudden parade of self-flagellating religious nuts was a Monty Python influence.

Woody Allen:

His big contribution was that he developed a vocabulary to work on the interiors of people. He would choose these great and gifted actors and he would guide them so they could project these inner states of extreme emotional intensity. He would use close-ups and keep those close-ups going longer and longer, and he never let up. Gradually the psychological feelings of the character the actor was portraying just sort of show up on the screen. He was so unsparing with the camera. Finally you start to see the wars that are raging inside the characters, these psychological wars and emotional wars, and it’s no less visual in the end than the movements of armies.

The Keep (1983, Michael Mann)

A movie about nazis being killed off by aliens should’ve been more entertaining – besides a really fantastic smoke-monster effect, this was only pretty good. It tries to be very serious and sets up many conflicts (good alien/bad alien, good nazi/bad nazi, nazis/jews, etc.) then doesn’t do anything wonderful with any of these things.

Trevor: “it fell apart for me when none of the story mattered… mystery invincible guy with glowing eyes walks in and defeats the beast, the worst execution of deus ex machina.”

Smoke Monster, de-smoked:

Okay, Nazis led by Jurgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane in In the Mouth of Madness, and I think Kyle’s dad in Dune) occupy a Romanian town and camp in an empty fortress watched over by a priest (Robert Prosky of Christine and Gremlins 2), who calls in his professor friend Ian McKellen with daughter Alberta Watson (Hedwig/Hansel‘s mom) to translate ancient writings after soldiers keep showing up dead. Prochnow isn’t murdering enough villagers, so the more ruthless Gabriel Byrne (three years before Gothic) is sent to take charge, later shoots Prochnow dead. Smoke Monster heals the formerly-crippled Ian McKellen, says he’s a golem-like Jewish avenger who will crush all nazis if Ian frees him. The priest gets all shitty and tells Ian he can burn in hell (admittedly all the nazis might be stressing him out), meanwhile Mystery Invincible Guy (top-billed Scott Glenn, Jodie Foster’s boss in Silence of the Lambs) has sex with Ian’s daughter until she notices he has no reflection. I think Invincible Guy and the nazis and Smoke Monster all kill each other at the end?

Alberta with sex alien:

Ian under Smoke Monster’s spell:

Second movie I’ve watched this Shocktober where the first death is by exploding head. TV veteran Mann’s second feature, which he has since disowned, based on a story by the guy who wrote Pelts. The actors act as big as possible (apparently Ian McKellen has mellowed with age) and the then-trendy Tangerine Dream soundtrack does the nazi-horror atmosphere no favors. But it’s a startlingly different movie, anyway.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)

New priest arrives hopeful at his first parish, is immediately eyed suspiciously by a powerful man having an affair with his kid’s governess. Every day will be a new disappointment for this young priest until his eventual death. A neighboring priest tells him: “A true priest is never loved. The church doesn’t care a whit whether you’re loved, my son. Be respected, obeyed. Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow.”

Adulterous couple:

But he’s hardly respected or obeyed – people think him a meddler and a drunk, as he stumbles around dying slowly from undiagnosed stomach cancer, tormented by students and threatened by their parents. He manages to reach one woman, but she dies the next day and his meeting with her is misunderstood by others. Finally he goes off to see a doctor, and soon dies at the house of a former colleague.

The priest gets bad news:

Young terror Serafita, who does the priest a kindness towards the end:

I thought of Winter Light when the priest gives a daily mass for only one attendant – the commentary mentions it too. Surprised to hear that Bresson was agnostic.

The local count is the one having the affair (with Nicole Maurey of Day of the Triffids). The priest wants to help the count’s daughter Chantal, whom he believes to be sadly neglected, and wife, who is a shut-in mourning the death of her son. He tries to convince the family not to send Chantal away for good, and convince the countess to open up – semi-successfully too, as the governess is sent away instead after the countess’s death.

Priest vs. Chantal:

More grimly serious than Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, sharing sympathetic doomed clergy as main character with Les Anges du Peche, and more austere than either of them. Won some awards in Venice, while top prize went to Rashomon. Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (Mouchette, Under the Sun of Satan). Lead priest Claude Laydu later played Franz Schubert in a biopic.

R. Humanick in Slant:

Bresson sees spiritual disorder as a disease, not unlike the stomach cancer we suspect is—and is ultimately confirmed to be—plaguing our titular character. Likely to fall ill at the slightest exertion, he has taken to a diet consisting entirely of stale bread soaked with wine. This leads the unnaturally suspicious townsfolk to suspect alcoholism, and in a heartbreaking revelation, we learn that the priest was in fact born to alcoholic parents (“pickled from birth,” as someone tactlessly puts it). Wine drinking is seen less as a habit to be abhorred, however, than as a routine not unlike holy communion, although Laydu’s fasting during shooting adds immeasurably to the priest’s sickly appearance and the accruing tone of his death rattle, and there remains a subtextual suggestion that our physical and spiritual limitations are naturally entwined.

F. Bonnaud for Criterion:

So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.

Winter Light (1962, Ingmar Bergman)

Set in one day, almost a real-time portrait of the failings of local pastor Gunnar Bjornstrand (bad father from Through a Glass Darkly). He gives his sermon to a sparse, unattentive congregation then has a series of disspiriting meetings in his office. Gunnel Lindblom (servant girl in The Virgin Spring) wants him to speak with her husband, a depressed Max Von Sydow, never looking more sad and powerless. Local atheist teacher, friend and off-again love interest Ingrid Thulin (Sydow’s secret wife in The Magician) writes the pastor a an attack/analysis letter, delivered as a speech to-camera.

Gunnar and Ingrid:

Then Von Sydow is back (mentioned: “a spider God, a monster”, direct callback to Through a Glass Darkly). He is feeling suicidal and the pastor so completely fails to help (“I’m no good as a clergyman,” he even admits) that Sydow promptly wanders outside and shoots himself in the head. Ingrid goes with Gunnar to inform the widow, and along the way he discusses their lack of a relationship. “I don’t want you. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. And I don’t love you, because I love my wife. When she died, so did I.”

Widow Gunnel:

Off to the next church service in another town, joined by the hunchbacked sexton, a thoughtful man and the best character in the movie. Each tormented by their lives’ lack of meaning, Gunnar begins the service, which is attended only by Ingrid.

Sexton Allan Edwall, later in Fanny & Alexander and The Sacrifice:

A strong contender for Most Depressing Film of All Time. Made the same year as Frantisek Vlácil’s The Devil’s Trap (“an allegory regarding science, religion and secular power”) and The World’s Greatest Sinner, in which Timothy Carey renames himself God and defies the other God to show himself. Max von Sydow would follow this up by playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

The ending, in Bergman’s words: “Irrespective of everything, you will hold your Communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to you.”

P. Cowie from the DVD extras:

When it came out, I remember certainly being very shocked that this did not look like a Bergman film. It didn’t have that spectacular technical expertise which we associated during the 50’s with Bergman. But looking back I think it was very deliberate on his part. It wasn’t a budget problem or anything like that. He just wanted something very, very wintry and very, very severe.

P. Cowie:

Film buffs who know Bergman’s earlier film Through a Glass Darkly will note the organist’s scornful dismissal of that work’s conclusion: “God is love; love is God.” Indeed, Winter Light stands as a bridge between Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, as well as Bergman’s farewell to his own religious upbringing. Some might call it an exorcism.


The sexton, the little twisted man, alone has a face that is alive with wonder at the mystery of faith. He has been reading the Gospels, he says, and thinks the emphasis on Christ’s suffering on the cross is all wrong. Christ only suffered a few hours, he says, while he, Algot, has suffered more and longer, and it is not so bad. No, the real suffering of Christ came when his disciples betrayed him at Gethsemane, and when he cried out to a father who seemed to have forsaken him. He suffered because he feared no one had heard or understood his message. Christ suffered because he, too, was dismayed by the silence of God.

To The Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick)

A very Malickian movie, with fields of grain and far more voiceover than dialogue. Absolutely full of camera movement, all of it motivated by place or action, and brilliant associative editing. Maybe a few too many shots with the sun right behind the foreground person’s head (this happens in most of the shots), but a beautiful, breathtaking movie to watch – and to hear, with appropriately big music by Hanan Townshend (returning from Tree of Life).

As for what actually happens in the movie, I’ll need to watch (happily) some more times, or refer to film writers and/or philosophers. Ben Affleck is our central/absent hero, with hardly any lines, as the film takes the POV of the women with him. First Olga Kurylenko (of a recent James Bond movie) comes from France to Oklahoma with her daughter, leaves again when Ben won’t marry her. Rachel McAdams (of a recent Woody Allen movie) takes up with Ben, but this doesn’t last long, and Olga returns without her daughter, marries and later divorces the stoic Ben. Meanwhile Javier Bardem (of a recent James Bond movie and a recent Woody Allen movie) is a local doubting minister who knows all three primary characters but doesn’t play a central role in their story, spending more time among the poorer citizens. The great DP Emmanuel Lubezki (nominated this year for Gravity instead of this) rightly described it all as abstract – and as usual, rumors abound of major actors and storylines that didn’t survive into the final edit (they’re not in the DVD extras either).

Not as straightforwardly religious (or as straightforwardly anything) as I’d heard, and possibly even less narrative than Tree of Life. Malick increasingly makes all other films seem unaccomplished and inadequate. Looking for articles I’m surprised at how many critics hated the movie, are tired of Malick’s techniques, say the characters and story are over-familiar. These critics have no love in their hearts.

M. Koresky:

He was once a myth, and many seem to have preferred him that way—with hallowed artists, absence is easier to confront than presence. He’s now a constant in our film culture, a searching, grasping, wrestling artist. … he seems to be discovering the world anew right along with Marina; this is a searching, selfless filmmaker, imagining the point of view of a good-hearted, soulful, and terribly solitary woman. In this way, To the Wonder is like the more elegiac second half of The New World — everything following Q’orianka Kilcher’s marriage to the laconic yet loving husband played by Christian Bale — stretched to feature length, a fish-out-of-water tale that finds beauty and harmony in disruption and estrangement.