We must learn to read art better to understand how it can make us better friends, better neighbors, better citizens, better humans.
In The Club, a series of interviews with the house's inhabitants, the disgraced priests, are shot close up. As they deliver their darkest, most brazen statements of non-confession, they face us straight on, with their faces filling the screen. The film cuts back and forth between distasteful interlocutor and guilty party, with our own eyes facing the screen each time, as if we are switching sides in the conversation. In some ways, it feels not unlike watching the devastating documentary The Act of Killing. We are confronted by their crimes and their false superiority, unable to look away. We must wince. We must pay attention.
The point isn’t for us to magnanimously accept those other people as humans or to feel their plight or their problem. That's impossible, and even if it wasn't, to do it leaves us in the comfortable company of our “own” people. That’s comfortable. The point is something deeper, more unsettling.
In the middle of the last century, Flannery O’Connor wrote:
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.
I think O’Connor had it mostly right, but I’m not sure she went far enough. It seems sometimes that it is those of us most used to talking about wrongdoing who have to be reminded of our own. Sometimes we need the shouting, the large and startling figures.
Larrain manages to place us in the company of the damned—to put us in the interlocutor’s chair, and then in the guilty party’s chair. If it’s a move many of us might not want to subject ourselves to, perhaps it can still inform how we make and experience art. What we sometimes feel is not compassion or empathy, but judgment. What we ought to feel is conviction. Sometimes the choir needs the preaching. We, you and I, too often blind ourselves to our complicity in the darkness.
The Club includes graphic violence toward humans and animals as well as lots of prolonged, unswerving, graphic descriptions of sexual assaults, and a scene with a sexual encounter that turns violent and is distasteful.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, April 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.