Sandokan (Roberto Farías), a roaming fisherman, stands outside a modest house in the Chilean coastal town of La Boca, and calls out to Father Lazano like a child calling a friend to play. In his singsong invitation, Sandokan begins by rhyming his own name with those of flowers, but just a few lines in, the verses take a nasty turn, recalling in horrifically explicit detail the sexual abuse Lazano subjected him to years ago. There are others in the house listening, four men and one woman for whom every word Sandokan sings is a piercing violation. Sandokan must be silenced. A gun is set before Father Lazano.
Several far more pastoral scenes have wafted by before the appearance of Sandokan—a dog race, a song, a meal—and it actually takes us a while to realize that the four men we see living out what seems at first to be a quiet retirement are priests and that the woman is Sister Mónica, whose gentle admonishments for minor infractions are her way of reminding these men that she is their jailer. All four priests, one long gone senile, the other three with their fiendishly resourceful wits still about them, have been shuttled off to this house by the Vatican. They are to live out their days under the protection of the Church and, in return, remain quiet and all but invisible.
It’s impossible to resist the urge to compare Pablo Larraín‘s The Club with John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, which screened at the Berlinale last year. Calvary set a single victim of a priest’s abuse against Father James, a man sincerely struggling to redeem his past and McDonagh’s focus is on the various ways the townspeople aim to thwart his efforts. That Irish coastal town might have been shot by its Chamber of Commerce, while La Boca, as shot by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, is as dark and dinghy as the sins of the Fathers.
Once the gun goes off, an outsider, Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), arrives as a sort of private investigator whose ultimate aim is to shut the house down. The way the four priests and Sister Mónica close ranks would do any Mafia family proud. Even more fascinating and disturbing than the intrigue, though, are the interviews Garcia conducts with the priests. Each of the four—Fathers Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Silva (Jaime Vadell), Ortega (Alejandro Goic) and Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking)—has constructed his own theological system to justify himself, reimagining, just as one example, the stealing of children during the Pinochet years as saving them. The Club is surely one of the darkest and most complex narratives at the Berlinale this year.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“In his last three films, Chilean writer-director Pablo Larrain explored the Pinochet regime’s shattering effect on his homeland in ways bizarre (Tony Manero), bleak (Post Mortem) and hopeful (No), yet always with a true touch of originality,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. The Club is “a surprising and often thought-provoking effort from a filmmaker who has never chosen to take the simple path, confirming Larraín as one of the more genuine talents working in cinema today.”
“Larraín is in fierce command of his craft here, reeling us into the hermetic world of the club until we too feel imprisoned by its walls,” writes Variety‘s Scott Foundas. “But Larraín is every bit as gifted an actors’ director, with standout work here by Castro, as the priest who has tied himself into the most complex knots of self-deception, and Zegers, who exudes an eerie calm as the caretaker of what just might be the most haunted lodging this side of the Overlook Hotel.”
Updates, 2/11: Michael Pattison for RogerEbert.com: “It’s not just that Larraín’s band of banished outsiders have dark histories veiled over by the church: in many ways, since their misuses of power were enabled and perhaps even encouraged by this untouchably sacred institution, they are themselves victims. Such are the panoramic implications of Larraín’s allegory.”
“Where No was invested in people, The Club takes on a very heavy topic with a level of disdain that left me feeling cold,” writes Adam Cook in the Notebook.
For Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door, Larraín’s added “a welcome maturity to his misanthropy that lends an unexpected moral weight to the coal-black comedy.”
“This tart, smart and consistently surprising blend of ultra-serious material and darkly comic execution looks set to catapult director and co-writer Larraín… into the front rank of international arthouse filmmakers,” writes Neil Young for Indiewire.
“It was announced last year that Larraín would direct a new US remake of Scarface, which would be his first English-language feature,” notes Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian. “If that goes ahead, Hollywood will be lucky to have him.”
Updates, 2/15: The Club, which has won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize, is Larraín’s “most uncompromising and vociferous film to date,” declares Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “It’s also remarkable that the entire film is peppered with instances of pitch black humor, eliciting laughter both genuine and thoroughly unsettling. Lest there should be any doubt about the gravity of the material, however, the narrative builds up to a climax of traumatizing violence and intensity when the priests demonstrate the extent they are willing to go in order to safeguard their fraudulent façade. Though profoundly upsetting, The Club’s assault on institutionalized hypocrisy never risks feeling unjustified.”
“Filmed by the Chilean auteur in his increasingly familiar dirty aesthetic, an art that witnesses significant surface streaking and flaring, El Club is yet another affecting tale of psychic suppression that is most successful for its creation of a truly last atmosphere,” writes Michael J. Anderson.
Updates, 2/21: “Never failing to bring us steadfast lessons of the past and always holding those who hide the truth under lock and key to account, Larraín has created another masterful piece of cinema,” writes Tarah Judah for desistfilm. “And it will haunt us, just like the truth it echoes, for years to come.”
Jessica Kiang talks with Larraín for the Playlist.
I have no way of knowing, but I like to think that Jem Cohen‘s Counting was filmed as a diary in New York and as a travelogue in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Porto and Sharjah (and on planes and trains in between) before it became an essay on the editing table. There would be, of course, the selection of footage from what’s undoubtedly an extensive library, the overlaying in some passages of non-diagetic sound samples from radio broadcasts, phone conversations and so on, and then the thematic grouping into fifteen distinct chapters with titles and occasional quotes. One of those chapters is “Skywriting,” which, as Cohen explains in his director’s statement, is a tribute to the late Chris Marker. What Marker has meant to Cohen over the years is not made explicit in Counting (though you’ll see plenty of cats around the world); for that, turn to the conversation Thom Powers had with Cohen last year.
Those who’ve seen Museum Hours will remember that, while much of the 2012 film takes placed in hushed interiors, even the scenes that venture out into the hustle and bustle of Vienna have a meditative quality about them. In Counting, the silence of the observer is at the heart of even a chapter collecting reflections in New York’s storefront windows, busy and vibrant “natural” double exposures. Unease does swell up in some chapters. Cohen records protests here and there, but more as an audiovisual experience than as reportage or towards any overt political statement. A family emergency calls Cohen home from Moscow and we listen to a tense medical update as his camera glides up an escalator or waits patiently by an airplane window, traveling as fast as technologically possible yet somehow also disturbingly and, we assume, for Cohen, frustratingly still. For now, I’ll simply add “Recommended” and give the floor to others.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“Cohen understands the limitations of the image, of the impossibility of fully articulating a place, and instead uses abstracted observations to create a point of view,” writes Adam Cook in the Notebook. “Paced with a sense of transience (the shots are not long, sometimes as fleeting as a couple seconds, but never dwelling for too much time), Counting doesn’t so much situate us in the present of Cohen’s filming, but sits us beside him now, gazing into memory, thoughts and feelings of the present-past before us, making the film’s closing Chris Marker quote the perfect last note: ‘…In this layman’s double for prayer that we call memory.'”
Writing for Grolsch Film Works, Michael Pattison notes that “much of Cohen’s imagery seems to have been filmed from under some kind of camouflage: screens, windows, reflective panes, obstacles and so on constantly draw our attention to the outsider’s perspective that the filmmaker assumes, while the gentle swaying of his soft-focus handheld camerawork suggests an amateurish voyeurism as much as it does a diaristic thrust…. If this film is about anything, then it is the enclosure and expropriation of land by big business and how these processes shape and affect the basic experiences of those at ground-level. Who is running our cities and to what end? That’s a question too large for this film’s perspective, but as a snapshot of that eternally contestable site we call urban space, Counting is not without its moments.”
More from David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter.
Update, 2/11: “As elusive as the film is,” writes Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door, “the sheer experience of watching this series of globe-trotting montages is often thrilling in its visual invention and provocative editing juxtapositions.”
Update, 2/21: “It may have been due to seeing them just a few days apart, but throughout Counting I thought repeatedly of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “It’s a comparison that reflects on both films: it shows just how far Malick has ventured into the non-narrative arena that I had the similar impression here of a filmmaker assembling a lot of fleeting memories and ideas with no real hierarchy in an attempt to rescue them from the swift-moving currents of time. But Counting could be seen as the more honest film, without any bombast or aestheticized gloss, and it makes a lot more room for the viewer, lacking Malick’s slightly panicky propensity for whispered fragments of often contradictory philosophy.”
I have a feeling Germans have stopped hoping for a figure to tower as tall as Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders did in the late 70s and early 80s—regular invitations to Cannes, cultish celebrity status in New York and then, years later, the retrospectives, festival jury duties (for the survivors), induction into the Criterion canon and all the rest.
In 1998, Run Lola Run kicked up a flurry of excitement by channeling the then-electric energy of the newly reunited capital, but Tom Tykwer chose not to repeat himself—a wise decision in many ways that would nevertheless lead him to relatively large budget international productions that would spare no room for the formal audacity of Lola.
When Head-On won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2004, jury president Frances McDormand told Fatih Akin, “Your film is rock-n-roll.” Could Akin be the standard bearer of a multikulti 21st century Germany? Evidently not. The filmography since that bright and shining moment has been, to put it politely, spotty.
I don’t know exactly when I stopped hoping that Andreas Dresen would be the one to carry the torch, but for a while there, hopes were not unfounded, especially after the breakthrough of Nachtgestalten (1999) and its followup, Halbe Treppe (2002). As with Akin, the elevation of Dresen to that undefinable next level bore with it a sort of statement-making appeal. Dresen was born in 1963 in what was then the German Democratic Republic. And by the way, to clarify, by “next level,” I’m not talking about directors who make very good or even great films, your Christian Petzolds or Dominik Grafs, but rather, those who also make a distinctive mark, leave their personal stamp on a particular moment in time. The Americans do it all the time: Wes Anderson, David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater, etc.
At any rate, Andreas Dresen is back in Competition at the Berlinale with As We Were Dreaming, based on the novel by Clemens Meyer and cutting back and forth between 1989, when four guys, all aged 13, were Young Pioneers in Leipzig, and 1993/94/95, when, still a tight gang of “brothers,” they roam the desolate streets at night drinking, stealing cars and generally making a lot of rowdy noise without tipping over into the world of truly serious crime. They do manage to launch a potentially successful venture together, a techno club they dub Eastside, but a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads puts an end to that after a year. Disillusion and dissolution follow.
Once again, Dresen is working with the renowned (in certain circles) screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, best known for co-writing and co-directing (with Konrad Wolf) the East German classic Solo Sunny (1980). Kohlhaase is 83 now, was 58 in 1989, 63 in 1994, and some might have expected that a younger writer would have been better suited to slip into the minds of these protagonists. That’s not really the problem, though. As We Were Dreaming is rarely the story of Rico, Daniel, Paul and Mark as a group; instead, it tracks four parallel stories in two separate time periods, leaving little time to really bite into any them. Dresen pumps up the techno, the intertitles are catchy in a 90s sort of way, and the cast seems pumped, but really, if you want to see young Germans rumble, Victoria is your ticket.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
As We Were Dreaming “looks slick and is well-acted by a small cast of fresh faces but never comes together as a narrative, feeling just as disjointed and directionless as the people it portrays,” finds Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter.
“Stuffed to the gills with fights, strobe lights and anarchic energy, the well-played pic feels like a late arrival in a long line of movies from throughout the former Eastern bloc covering similar ground,” writes Jay Weissberg for Variety. “Dresen certainly knows his East German grunge, yet the unnecessary voiceover, frequent flashbacks and stereotyped female characters play like a film from at least 10 years ago.”