When Art Doesn't Make Us Better People

"The Club," a disturbing film about guilt and damnation, raises questions about art that resists creating empathy.
When Art Doesn't Make Us Better People
'The Club'

In a scene in Spotlight, one character points out to another that just down the street from his own home is a house he never noticed before. It’s the home to several former priests forced into leave by the church after their molestation of young parishioners was discovered. Briefly, the measured Spotlight turns into a horror film, with a home full of menace and evil lurking quite literally around the corner.

The Club, by the Chilean director Pablo Larrain, descends straight into that hell, placing us in one of those houses—but instead of Boston, this time, we’re in a remote Chilean fishing village called La Boca. Several priests live quietly, in a regimented and peaceful life near the ocean, looked after by a woman they call “Sister.” They raise a dog for racing and pray and eat together. It’s like a small monastery.

Except everyone in the little enclave are there paying for their sins, sent there by the church. And when a new member of the house shows up, so does one of his victims, who describes in very graphic detail outside their gate what was done to him. Soon an agent of the church—Father Garcia, a straightlaced, humorless Jesuit who is a servant of the “new” church—shows up to the home to investigate each inhabitant, discovering in the process that they all maintain they don’t belong there with the other degenerates. Their sins vary, but represent in microcosm a number of the Church’s worst offenses against its flock, and they all hate Fr. Garcia, who seems to semicordially despise them back.

Larrain—who was raised Catholic but no longer practices—told the New York Times that “the key words in making The Club were ‘compassion’ and ‘impunity.’” He wanted to “try to understand what’s going on inside of those heads, those souls, those bodies, those hearts.”

It’s hard to imagine the audience he envisioned for The Club—which nonetheless won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival last year and has garnered acclaim in its native Chile. Its language is graphic, its characters grotesque in their inability to see their culpability. Their solution for their plight is destructive and distasteful. How they atone for their sins is off-balance. You feel pity for these men, but it’s not a pity that overrides your horror at their crimes; the pity and horror vie within the viewer as tense tug of war, and if you don’t feel deeply uncomfortable, you’re watching it wrong.

The old truism is that films, and art in general, helps us get inside the minds of people who aren’t like us. They develop empathy in us. By experiencing art, we become better, more empathetic people.

This statement can get floated as if we need it to “justify” watching movies, going to galleries, reading fiction, and listening to music. It’s a tool to develop us into better people, and that means, I suppose, that we’re not wasting our time on frivolities.

But what if we see inside those minds and want no part of it? What if our art leads us to judge others?

Plenty of art lovers aren’t paragons of empathy. Art doesn’t necessarily boost our character or make us more aware of the world around us. Using that as a justification for art just leads us down the path of instrumentalism—using other people, or their stories, as a means toward our own ends. It can have a good effect. But it’s not automatic.

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.

Caveat Spectator

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.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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When Art Doesn't Make Us Better People