Chilean director Pablo Larraín's dark and darkly comical competition entry "El Club (The Club)" is set in a seaside apartment that houses five clergymen and -woman. It's not immediately clear how this living arrangement came to be, although you do sense there's something off with this group of people who dine in silence and seem to have an uncommonly keen but carefully disguised interest in dog racing. With the arrival of a new priest who's determined to get to the bottom of a fatal incident that has transpired on their doorstep, all the dirty laundry hidden behind those walls finally comes to light.
This is a remarkable movie not only because of the all-around superb storytelling, but its pointed, ruthless indictment of the Catholic Church. Whether for the archaic dogmas, the countless acts of sexual transgression or just its habitual, firmly programmed tendency to cover things up, the Vatican is attacked, condemned, ridiculed on all fronts and no one from the church comes off clean. Through partly comedic portrayals, we see the absolute misery and psychological wretchedness in which people both sides of the altar live. And the accusatory, almost hopeless tone reaches its incendiary peak toward the end, when the figure seen as the conscience or even salvation of a rotten institution decides on a rather unexpected course of action. Suffice it to say this film is not going to win any favors with the Pope.
The daringly confrontational stance aside, this is simply a wicked story expertly told. All major characters are vividly drawn. From someone so repressed as to project his need for attachment on a dog to another who's willing to risk everything to preserve what little sense of community and purpose there's left, these unfortunate souls are distinct, memorable creations that leap from the screen and linger in your imagination. The wonderful cast of actors including Alfredo Castro and Antonia Zegers swims in and out of parodic territory with ease and collectively makes this eerie, sad club feel even more iconic. That the deadpan humor would work so well in a film this heavy must be credited to Larraín, though. It's those unlikely touches of lightness that complement the tragic core of the story and take the whole film to another level.
Though not without its faults – the photography is occasionally underlit and the cello-dominated score gets a bit overbearing at times – "El Club (The Club)" wows with the force of its cinematic strokes and dares everyone to picture the horrible fates at play inside any ordinary-looking residence.
Screening in Panorama, American writer/director Justin Kelly's "I Am Michael" is also very much about sex and church, seeing that it's a biopic of gay activist-turned-Christian pastor Michael Glatze. Chronicling Glatze's life over a decade-long period, it tries to make sense of this drastic change, promising explosive material if done right.
The sad news is, then, that it's done not quite right. To begin with, the narrative is straightforward in an uninspired way, giving the impression of merely connecting the dots of the various landmarks in our protagonist's life. And the few times where the director actually breaks away from reenacting a biography to try some tricks, it doesn't have the desired effect. Instead these flashbacks or imaginary scenes expose an inexperienced hand behind the camera still looking for a style. The actors, including James Franco as Glatze, are passable, if never truly outstanding. Franco is mindful of not taking the theatrics too far, but one never has the feeling that he has shaken off his own skin to become somebody else. As his one-time partner Bennett, Zachary Quinto's performance is decidedly one-note and doesn't leave much of an impression at all.
What makes this film nonetheless interesting is, besides the unique personality at its center that's well worth knowing about, the fact that it manages to retain some level of political ambivalence regarding homosexuality. Strangely reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper", it could conceivably be interpreted as ideological munition for both the conservative and the liberal. It's not necessarily the anti-gay movie nor the anti-anti-gay movie. Exactly that flexibility of perspective hints at a tantalizing, if ultimately unrealized potential of creating someone complex and three-dimensional.