Wisconsin Film Festival: "the Club" Looks Unflinchingly into the Heart of Religious Corruption
By Rob Thomas
April 20, 2016
In the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” there’s a scene in which one of the reporters is horrified to discover that a halfway house for pedophile priests is located just around the corner from his house.
Pablo Larrain’s “The Club” goes inside a house like that. Just as the Chilean director didn’t flinch from looking at the dark heart of political corruption in films like “Tony Manero,” he peers into the darkness of religious corruption in this new film. The film played Monday at Sundance Cinemas as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival.
The “retreat,” as the Catholic Church euphemistically calls it, is in a seaside house painted the yellow of caution tape. The four priests who live there are supposed to be doing penance, but they mostly drink, watch television and run their greyhound in the local dog races. And they don’t think or talk about what they’ve done. Larrain films the workings of the house in soft lights and blurred colors, a haze that’s physical as well as moral.
That peace is shattered when a new priest arrives at the house. One of the priest’s victims, full of vengeance and alcohol, has followed him, and stands outside the gates screaming in graphic detail all the things the priest made him do when he was an altar boy. The new priest kills himself.
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This brings the attention of the Catholic Church; in particular, a hard-charging reformist from the Vatican named Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) who starts grilling the priests about their crimes. He threatens to close the house and expose the priests, but his motives, like so many in the film, are murky. We’re not even sure what the priests’ crimes even are — one claims that he was a political prisoner of the Pinochet era, not a sex criminal. But the truth has remained buried for so long that we may never dig it out.
The priests all seem like wounded, desperate men, more pathetic than truly evil. The most chilling member of the house is actually Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers), the nun who runs the house and keeps the men in line. She has a beatific smile, but beneath that smile is a heart of utter ruthlessness that goes to great lengths to preserve the house. That smile haunted me long after the film was over; it encapsulates the blandly superior facade of the Church that concealed such moral rot.
Larrain presents a combustible mix here, with the victim raging outside the walls, Father Garcia probing inside the walls, and the priests in between. “The Club” is a deeply disturbing film, but it’s never more disturbing than when it shows us the humanity in these priests, the men behind the monsters.