Directed by Pablo Larraín
Opens February 5
Crises of conscience are few and far between in the Oscar contender Spotlight—most everyone who’s not a flack for the Catholic Church ultimately wants the truth about sex abuse out there—but the quietly crusading journalist played by Brian d’Arcy James ultimately faces a dilemma for the ages. He’s desperate to let his neighbors know about the “rehab” house for pedophile priests that’s located right down the block. But should he risk jeopardizing the Spotlight team’s hard work on the church-cover-up story by speaking out about precisely what it is they’re looking into?
Such a safe house provides the setting for the Chilean film The Club, the largely unsatisfying fifth feature by director Pablo Larraín, which has banked plenty of honors itself—the Silver Bear winner at Berlin was recently nominated for a Golden Globe in the foreign-language category. (Larraín is currently in production on his English-language debut, a Jackie O. biopic starring Natalie Portman.) At this seaside retreat, four off-duty priests and a former nun lie low under a lax form of house arrest—they eat plentiful communal meals, watch reality TV, and dabble in dog racing—ducking any real punishment for having treated organized religion as a front for organized crime. As written by Larraín, Guillermo Calderón, and Daniel Villalobos, these priests are not exclusively pedophiles: One, a former army chaplain, made a habit of recording in a little black book the substance of soldiers’ confessions to him; another sold unwanted babies on the black market. Still another can’t remember a thing—is it possible that his dementia is in part a coping mechanism?
At the beginning of the film, a distinguished-looking fifth priest arrives—only to shoot himself when confronted by a former orphan whom he’d had his way with (played by Roberto Farías, the young man’s canopy of curly black hair snuffing out the catch light in his eyes—one of the film’s few moving touches). Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers), Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro), and company soon switch into manipulative damage-control mode as they face the questioning of a Vatican envoy (Marcel Alonso) who does not take kindly to the regime of heel-cooling at the house. Strangely, the film itself (shot by frequent Larraín collaborator Sergio Armstrong) often appears to join the out-of-circulation priests in their willful evasion: A deep haze often overtakes the film’s images, particularly as natural light diffuses through the house’s windows midday, or across the beach at dawn and dusk.
Fresh off a corrosive (and increasingly impressive) trilogy about life under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (Tony Manero, Post Mortem, and No), Larraín has mounted a study of deflected guilt that’s no less incendiary—as the film approaches its overwrought home stretch, we see someone get fisted, and innocent animals meet unpleasant fates. For all the au courant brutality on display, though, this in many ways feels like a more traditional blindly angry broadside against the church than the more buttoned-up Spotlight, a drama that was clear on human motives, conscientiously situating individuals within institutions. When it comes to the sinners themselves, The Club is an altogether less focused affair: The film isn’t interested in penetrating too far past the organizational smokescreen its ever-on-guard priests are hiding behind, and we don’t learn a whole lot about Farías’s victim save for the fact that he’s perpetually wasted. Perhaps the great extent of the self-protectiveness and the dissipation is the point, but it’s nonetheless frustrating that the characters here seem to stay mostly under wraps—the movie winds up feeling like a kind of cover-up in itself.