(Originally appeared in Film International on Mar. 26, 2015)
When "No" (2012) took the festival circuit by storm and eventually won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination some years back, there were probably a handful of us who remained unconvinced or even slightly mystified. The historical drama about the ad campaign that brought down Pinochet's military regime was certainly substantial, informative, ably told, but that all-decisive spark of genius, that masterful sense of ease or vitality might have been wanting. It's comforting and doubly exciting then, to see Chilean director Pablo Larraín return with a bona fide tour de force of a movie that delivers on all that promise so many saw in him.
Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, the ruthlessly dark and acidly funny film opens unspectacularly enough. We see a man playing with his dog on the beach as he keeps throwing a bait tied to a fishing rod around in wide circles, keeping it ever just out of reach of the eager but hopeless hound. We see the same man, joined by three other similarly inconspicuous, middle-aged to elderly compatriots and an unassuming woman, silently dining together. And we see them follow a dog race in town closely, albeit somewhat surreptitiously, where their well-trained pet does them proud and finishes first. All this is shown while the temporal setting is not clear, the location nondescript and the arrangement these people live by unexplained. Within the purplish, foggy first frames of the picture, which optically give the impression of being softly out of focus, everything seems still, routine, calmly resolved. Yet at the same time, the pacified appearances speak a disturbing oddness that can't quite be contained. In fact, it might just be the careful hush that gives it away.
The mystery of what's really at stake is temporarily kept alive with the arrival of Father Lazcano, a new addition to the "community". Some details do surface as rules of the house are relayed. We learn these are all clergymen and -woman. They must abide by a punishingly strict code of conduct which practically isolates them from the rest of world. It's obvious too that they don't enjoy any intrusion or attention, a fact made notable by the unannounced visit of a drunk drifter, whose mere presence and loud, unseemly accusations against the freshly settled Father Lazcano from outside the residence bring on tremendous distress inside. The movie essentially starts when the demanded confrontation ends in tragedy and another priest is sent down to investigate the incident.
Screenwriters Guillermo Calderón, Daniel Villalobos and Larraín himself are smart in their approach to telling a story about secrecy. In gradually, almost reluctantly revealing plot elements and character histories, the viewer is relegated to the role of a true outsider, constantly intrigued by but excluded from this group of five. We get to first spend time with these curiously blank faces, observe their tenuous, rarefied existence, experience them as human beings with their fair share of quirks and penchants- context-free, judgment-free. A moral dilemma is thus created when the icky background of how they ended up in this semi-self-imprisonment is introduced and, seeing this once so harmless-seeming bunch in a brand new light, one must decide whether or not and, indeed, how to side with them any longer.
The verbally explicit, tonally chameloeonic screenplay makes no apologies for its ridicule and attack of the Catholic Church, landing joke after joke about the backward thinking and perverted logic passed down over generations. At the same time it exposes the human devastation wreaked by such restrictive dogmas coupled with habitual lying to work up some palpable, righteous rage. By turns ironic and angry but always based on a solid, juicy plot which often can't be found among the lofty affairs shown at film festivals, this is highly satisfying auteur cinema with that exceptional audience appeal. When, in the final act, all the dirty laundry is laid bare and the dimension of potential disaster is made clear to the investigating priest, we get to watch first-hand how the survival instincts of a thousand-year-old institution click, sealing off every leaky opening and chopping down loose ends like a well-oiled machine. It's a stroke of brilliance in screenwriting that, paced like a thriller, brings the absurdity and wretchedness of the situation home. By letting the audience in on the rotten secret from within, it's also quietly saying: "Welcome to the club".
Larraín is a patient, wickedly skilled storyteller who knows he's got a great tale up his sleeves. While fully aware of the gravity of the subject matter, he dips into it deceptively light, facilitating an easier immersion in the particular circumstances and, in the process, allowing for a vivid, more open-minded look at the condemned. Instead of victimizing the perpetrators or trivializing the atrocities committed at their hands, however, this unsensationalistic, almost relaxed treatment uncovers the sick psychology behind the veil of holiness even more tellingly. For sure, overall the movie is not without its bumpy stretches, marked sometimes by a lone cello score that arguably lays it on too thick. But compared to "No", Larraín shows significantly boosted confidence and a playful dexterity here, drifting in and out of comedy, delighting with a blasphemously dry humor. Through this partly comic-like quality plus emphatic motifs and iconic visual cues, he also helps the movie obtain a fabulous, almost mythological air. This last achievement is of course not possible without the contribution of a superb team of actors, each bringing a distinct brand of unnameable peculiarity to the character ensemble. Among the many fine performers Alfredo Castro is fearlessly committed as the withdrawn, proudly repressed Father Vidal who now finds his life's purpose only in a greyhound. And Antonia Zegers gives the chillingly composed and resolute Sister Mónica the inner fire that makes her status as the guardian of the group believable.
Unsurprisingly and entirely deservedly, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Berlinale. No doubt it will offend many people's sensitivities and it probably won't be Vatican's favorite movie of the year, but wherever one stands on the issue of systemized abuse within the Catholic Church, this is first and foremost an engaging and uniquely powerful cautionary tale about hiding, ignoring, self-deluding. It's about the terrible cost of concealing so much so long until, as a character says at one point, "you don't know who you're covering up for anymore."