by Ben Diamond
Pablo Larraín put himself on the map in 2008 with his film Tony Manero, set in Santiago in 1978, where, against the backdrop of Pinochet’s brutal regime, a man goes on his own psychopathic killing spree whilst simultaneously trying to get onto a reality TV show to perform a Saturday Night Fever dance routine. In his new film, Larraín continues to delve deeply into the dark Chilean heart, once again combining a very dark humour with an exploration of the very worst in human behaviour.
Set in a remote Chilean town by the sea, the film centres on a house for excommunicated Catholic priests, some of whom have been accused of being paedophiles. The house is run by the tender yet firm Sister Mónica, who has her own demons to grapple with too. Although the priests are forbidden to talk to anyone outside the house, their one release is when they decamp to the local greyhound track to watch (from afar, with binoculars) Sister Mónica race their own dog, who they have been training, for cash.
Everything is shaken up when a disturbed character called Sandokan turns up outside the house and starts to recount, to everyone and no-one in particular, in the most graphic detail, all the abuse he has suffered at the hands of a priest as a young child. Father García turns up, despatched by the upper echelons of the Catholic church to make an assessment of the mental stability of the residents of the house, and, more importantly, to discern whether they are repenting for their sins or simply having a relaxed retirement at a seaside retreat.
In Father García we are given our psychological crowbar to pry open the inner psyches of the exiled priests. He conducts interviews with all of them individually about their past crimes, all of which are different, and their attitudes towards those crimes now, all of which are different. In these interviews, when the camera is on Father García, it is crisp and clear, and when it turns to face the cast of the interrogated, it becomes blurrier, more out of focus, as if the degradation of memory as time wears on, and the moral fog it produces, has warped the stock of the film itself.
Less a film trying to do a boot-job on the Catholic church, Larraín is more interested in the three-way struggle for power between Sister Mónica, who appears to command the respect of the priests but at the same time is implicit in their immoral slouch towards indifference, the priests themselves, and the reforming Father García, the outsider who arrives as the Lord’s judge. As Father García starts to exert his influence – no more alcohol in the house, no more dog racing, less meat and more vegetables, things start to get more tense. The conclusion is unexpected and open-ended. I would single out Roberto Farías for praise as the Christlike and troubled Sandokan.