In the small town of La Boca, Chile, where there seems to be nothing but a handful of residences by the seaside, one of the houses stands out from the rest. Its yellow walls seem to have a shine of their own against the bleak gray tones of the Pacific Ocean mist that constantly engulfs the town. The haze welds the sky and the ocean into one all-encompassing discoloured atmospheric nothingness, and the Yellow House on the slope of one of the many hills that tower over the town.
Under the mist and the nothingness, there are a handful of people that call this town home. They work, they drink, they go to sleep thinking about their dreams, like anybody else. The only thing that truly separates the people of La Boca from anyone else is the fact that they reside in this bleak town. They deal with the intricacies of life, the dread and the boredom, while floating around in this apathetic cold environment. One might think that the people in the Yellow House on the hill are special; they have to be if they live in such a particular place.
As a matter of fact, the five individuals inhabiting this household are special, yet not for the reasons one might think. These people are not in La Boca because they want to be here. They are being forced to exist in this particular place by a higher power, a power they believe in, but that they have ultimately betrayed. It appears that the small town of La Boca is a place deemed to act repentant, to feel remorse, to be penitent. A place this higher power deems lesser than them. However, the truth is that these five individuals are in La Boca to hide, not to be remorseful. A small town seems like the best place to hide from the curious inquisitive eyes of big cities. The priests are incapable of feeling ashamed and contrite about what they did in the past because they do not believe they transgressed this higher power; it is instead a problem with this power’s governing body.
Where I am from, just like in La Boca, small towns can be spaces where law and order are optional, where the vast wing of the state cannot extend over them. Rules are instead instilled by other organisms. Parapolitical entities yield the power to demand respect and obedience. At times, there seems to be no larger and almighty establishment than the Catholic Church. Its mandates: unbreakable. Its strength: sovereign. It is far from surprising to know that the Church’s ability to mask the most vile, inhuman, and atrocious acts is successfully put to the test every time. This is Pablo Larraín’s El Club (2015).
In the beginning, the Yellow House is home to four ‘retired’ priests. They have all transgressed the archdiocese in different ways, yet are all confined to the same punishment. Father Vidal is a homosexual accused of defending pedophilia; Father Ortega snatched babies from mothers and put them up for adoption; Father Silva worked for the Church during the Pinochet regime; and Father Ramírez’ reasons remain a mystery, as he has lost the ability to talk. Under the care of Sister Mónica, the men have successfully established daily routines that keep their minds from dealing with their past. Father Vidal takes care of a greyhound while the other priests use the dog to bet on local races. The priests share prayer time and every meal together. Nothing special, a routine, like the ones everyone else in La Boca has. Maybe that is why we are all so keen as a human collective to morph our quotidian life into a routine. It keeps us busy, keeps us from facing the uncertain and the uncomfortable, and in this case, it keeps the exiled priests from confronting the corrupt and the vile.
However, between heaven and earth, nothing remains unseen. The Yellow House routine is interrupted when Father Lazcano, the newest member, arrives. He looks visibly shaken, affected maybe by the bleakness of the town, or maybe surprised by the lack of guilt in his peers. Before his new flatmates could know the reason Lazcano is being exiled, a slurred scream coming from the front of the house alerts everyone. Sandokan, a bearded man in a tracksuit, is yelling Lazcano’s name from the top of his lungs. Sandokan describes to the last detail how the priest used to sexually abuse him as a kid, how the priest used to promise salvation if he did what he was told. Silence.
This is when everything crumbles down. The roofs, the walls, the roads, the project of a town and the concept of humanity. Raised by priests myself, I became silent, too. Finally, Larraín’s uncoloured nothingness feels refreshing. Father Lazcano is not the first—and certainly not the last—to exploit the indoctrination of hundreds of millions. Utilizing the idea that we are all born sinners, we are all born to suffer. Yet, there is something worse waiting for us in an apparent infinite afterlife if we do not comply with a zealous set of rules. I cannot deal in absolutes as they do, but for people like Sandokan, maybe hell would not be as different as his life on earth.
Bang. Silence is no more in the air. A gunshot on Father Lazcano’s temple regurgitates blood as Sandokan flees in fear. The gun in his hand was given to him by the priests inside the house; not to kill himself, but to shoot at the man who dared to make them feel uncomfortable. Now that they have a dead body on their porch and a man that knows who they are, the priests are forced to get out of their safe haven to keep their much-loved order intact. This is where the heart of the problem resides to me—drunk by power and an ability to remain unscathed, these priests (and many others), are so enamoured with order that it becomes inconceivable for them to see beyond the instrumentality of a person. Sandokan’s life was forever altered by this authoritative figure in his life. As we see throughout El Club, Sandokan is unable to generate human connection, he is unable to perform mundane tasks, and he drowns his sorrows in liquor. Nonetheless, the priests see him as a threat to what they had built: a stronghold based on routine and a microcosm devoid of a past and history.
As the film develops, a new priest arrives, sent from Santiago, Father García is tasked with uncovering the truth behind the Lazcano-Sandokan affair. Again, the issue for the institution is not to offer reparations but to return the status quo to the town. Parallel to each other, the priests of the Yellow House and Father García do not share the same worldviews. It is a tug of war between the shamelessness of the former and the self-righteousness of the latter. Although the ultimate goal is the same, it feels like the starkness of La Boca has truly subtracted the last remnants of optimism from the exiled priests’ souls.
Conversely, the last bastion for innocence and simple purity is in the Yellow House. The last shimmering ray of hope is Father Vidal’s greyhound, the dog the priests use for lucrative reasons in races against the other dogs from the town. This dog does not abide by the same rules as the priests or the inhabitants of La Boca; the greyhound is a dog, not a human. Nonetheless, Larraín’s decision to place a living being that lacks consciousness and self-awareness within a group of humans that are abject to guilt and morals is of utmost importance. The priests, especially Father Vidal treat the greyhound as an equal, they respect its purpose as a living being with whom they share a symbiotic relationship.
In a way, their relationship with the dog is equally terrifying as it is undeniably logical. The greyhound is treated with respect and care because it cannot judge the priests’ vile acts, it is the perfect companion for them because it lacks the understanding to judge the priests. The greyhound is the antithesis of Father García and Sandokan, as they stand for the judgment the priests of the Yellow House had coming for years. Thus, the later decision of the priests to use the greyhound to deal with the threat Sandokan poses is the ultimate act of selfishness and apathy.
One night, Father Vidal separates from the group to hire two men to chase Sandokan out of town. When they realize who Father Vidal is, the men beat him up ignoring the priest’s pleading. La Boca and its inhabitants finally seem to react to the priests’ flagrancy with anger and violence. However, at the same time, Father Vidal’s peers choose a different path to deal with their problems. Armed with shovels and crushed glass, the priests decide to murder every single dog in town and put the blame on Sandokan. Their fear and cowardice brings them to kill the last beings who actually could not judge them, the last remnants of innocence, the only beings whose hands are clean.
To make their plan believable, the priests have to kill their greyhound too. At the peak of the night, when the mist is at its lowest point and a heavy silence invades the streets of La Boca, the priests asphyxiate their dear greyhound. Slowly life leaves its body with every whine and broken howl. Logically, the town believes the priests’ lie and tries to kill Sandokan, yet they are stopped by Father García. Sandokan, full of blood and bruises from head to toes, supplicates to the Father for a second opportunity. Even if he did not do anything wrong, his indoctrination is so ingrained into his soul that he believes the suffering and the pain are acceptable and deserving. Father García cringes at the horror of what he is seeing, at this moment it becomes apparent to him that Sandokan’s life has been forever tainted by their shared beliefs.
Finally, a moment of humanity. For one second La Boca does not feel like a bleak limbo, a transitional space at the gates of hell. The town feels a little bit lighter, a little bit more empathetic and benevolent. Father García comprehends that there is nothing he can do for the priests now, that they do not want to feel remorse nor change their ways. The Father understands that he was putting his attention in the wrong place, it was Sandokan who needed a second chance in life, a new beginning. Thus, Father García decides that the priests and sister Mónica are going to share the Yellow House with Sandokan, they will tend to his needs, they will break bread with him, pray together, and sleep in the same room. For him, this was the only way to honour Sandokan’s Catholic credo (which is strong and fervorous). Father García does not care that the four priests have to look at the consequences of their loathsome acts every day; they have lived in comfort for too long.
As they chant and pray together for the first time, Sandokan smiles warmly. The small town of La Boca is not a place engulfed in dread anymore, at least for him.