The four priests and a nun who live together in Pablo Larraín’s The Club are largely regarded as criminal, though not ill—by a Vatican emissary who investigates their secluded lives in a seaside home; by a couple of the men themselves; and certainly by the director. Larraín, a Chilean whose trademark work criticizes his country, this time turns his ire toward the Catholic Church. It’s not difficult to guess what his issues are.
Though we’ve recently seen the big-screen indictment of widespread pedophilia by Catholic priests and the subsequent coverup of the church in the Oscar-nominated Spotlight, Larraín and his two co-scripters push far past where that film’s helmer, Tom McCarthy, was willing to go. Spotlight indeed condemned the church, its reporters breaking open the stunningly systemic scandal that was initially believed to have involved only a handful of the Boston-area ordained. But its touch was tactful and deft. The Club, however, doesn’t just shy away from the lurid details, it spills them at the very beginning, in a seemingly never-ending monologue shouted by a drifter (Roberto Faraís) outside of the priests’ residence. And then they’re repeated, over and over, throughout 90-odd minutes that will leave you unsettled to the point of sickness.
Despite Larraín’s forthrightness regarding what are believed to be the men’s sins (though actually only a newcomer is accused by the initial, invasive litany), the bulk of the film comprises mysterious turns that are never granted clarity, resulting in its ugliness throwing you even more off-balance. Even before the stranger’s ramblings are silenced by an abrupt and shocking act, the priests and their “jailkeeper” nun are shown gambling on their greyhound and discussing how to win even more money—not exactly religious behavior, particularly by residents who have been exiled from the church to live a life of penance. They follow a relatively strict schedule of prayer, singing, and meals, but also drink alcohol and keep a gun in the house.
So when Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) visits from Santiago to check into an incident involving a gun, the residents have some covering up to do. He interviews each of them multiple times, with Larraín mostly keeping the camera on the faces of the interrogated. With the characters often sticking together in a group—the director’s shots so wide it’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s talking—the interviews are our only clues about who these people are. One, Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), seems to be accused only of facilitating illegal adoptions. He believes himself innocent of a crime. Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro) admits to homosexuality but not molesting children; he says that his sexuality has broadened his mind and brought him deeper love than is possible between a man and a woman. Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking) doesn’t often speak, floating from present to in his own world due to obvious mental challenges.
Also seemingly challenged is the jailkeeper herself, Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers, Larraín’s wife). She speaks to everyone, but especially Garcia, with a smile on her face that quickly no longer radiates warmth but delusion; she tells Garcia with a grin about something “terrible” happening to her, no further details given. And Father Silva (Jaime Vadell) speaks of little but his paranoia of Garcia, whispering to others that he’s going to “screw us.” Of everyone, Silva seems the most stable.
The drifter, Sandokan, keeps reappearing in their lives; he’s one source of viewer befuddlement, admitting that he had been molested by priests but alternately professing love and bitterness toward them and the church. But the real head-scratchers occur in the third act, which goes off the rails in terms of vileness with no hint of who propagated it or what that person’s intention was—they all take part to some degree, and most of them are OK with the outcomes. If Larraín’s intention was to both slam the church and give his audience a hint of how repulsed, traumatized, and likely complicit its victims felt, he hit it out of the park. As far as the characters’ closing hymn whose chorus asks to “grant [them] peace,” well, it’s doubtful that’s ever gonna happen.
The Club opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.