Four men and one woman serve out a unique form of spiritual punishment — or lack thereof — in “The Club,” Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s distinctively barbed, psychologically complex response to the manifold abuses of the Catholic Church. A very particular, intense experience, closer in flavor to the director’s earlier “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” than to the comparatively lighthearted “No,” Larrain’s fifth feature will hold many viewers at bay by sheer virtue of its unpleasant subject (and its unwillingness to dispense swift moral judgments). But those willing to enter “The Club” will discover an original and brilliantly acted chamber drama in which Larrain’s fiercely political voice comes through as loud and clear as ever.
Having used his previous three features to explore, in ever more surprising ways, Chilean life under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, it makes sense that Larrain (who’s been bandied about for a number of Hollywood projects in recent years, including a remake of “Scarface”) would see, in the Church, a new vantage from which to explore his favored themes of oppressed liberties and deferred blame. The “club” here is one to whose elite membership no one actually aspired — a kind of clandestine retirement home for scandal-plagued priests, quietly put out of sight (and mind) of the Vatican.
They reside in a small, unassuming house in the Chilean beach town of La Boca: Father Vidal (Larrain’s regular, sad-faced muse Alfredo Castro), Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), former army chaplain Father Silva (Jaime Vadell), and senile Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking), dutifully tended to by a similarly “retired” nun, Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers, the real-life Mrs. Larrain). By day, they eat, watch TV and generally keep their distance from the locals, though mostly they seem to devote themselves to training their pet greyhound to compete in a national racing circuit — a most unusual form of penitence if ever there was.
In the early moments of the film, before we’ve even learned who these men are or why they live together in this place, Larrain lulls us into an oddly tranquil idyll: wordless images of sunsets and waves and communal dinners, scored to the distinctive strings of Estonian composer (and Terrence Malick favorite) Arvo Part. But we are not much further into “The Club” when the delicate threads of this community begin to fray, with the successive arrival of two uninvited guests. The first is yet another disgraced priest, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza), whose presence does not go unnoticed by a young local fisherman, Sandokan (Roberto Farias), who remembers the abuses he suffered as an altar boy at Lazcano’s hands — information he takes to sharing with all of La Boca by shouting it from the doorstep of the priests’ heretofore anonymous retreat.
A sudden, violent incident brings an end to that problem and a beginning to a new one in the form of Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), a crisis counselor dispatched by the Church to check up on the club — and, the priests come to believe, to close it down. And “The Club,” which Larrain co-wrote with Guillermo Calderon and Daniel Villalobos, goes on to map the resulting ideological collision course, as the pious Garcia tries to reconcile his own ideas about faith with the best interests of the Church and the well-being of the damaged men under his care. Nothing, of course, is so easily said or done, with much of Larrain’s film unfolding as a series of interrogatory dialogues between Garcia and the other priests — as well as the crafty Sister Monica — who variously attempt to defend or deny their alleged actions, which range from pedophilia to their role in abducting babies from unwed mothers (a real, headline-making scandal in Chile in 2014).
All the while, the forlorn Sandokan lurks around the edges of the drama, the personification of all the Church’s unwitting victims, and a threat who cannot be ignored. How this ultimately plays out, in what might be called a kind of canine Kristallnacht, is a stunning sequence that suggests how, when forced into a corner, even a weakened, splintered Church will ferociously close ranks to protect itself.
A master of grimy atmosphere, Larrain 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. (The widescreen images by d.p. Segio Armstrong are stark and unforgiving.) But Larrain 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.