By Michael O'Sullivan
Father García (Marcelo Alonso), center, a Jesuit crisis counselor, arrives at a home in a Chilean coastal town to investigate an incident that occurred there in “The Club.” (Music Box Films)
If you watched the movie “Spotlight,” you’ll remember that one of the Boston Globe reporters working on an exposé of child sexual abuse in the Catholic priesthood discovers that he lives uncomfortably close to one of the “retreat” houses used by church hierarchy to domicile pedophiles who have been removed from the ministry. “Stay away from this house,” he writes, on a note to his kids scrawled across a photograph stuck to the refrigerator.
[“Spotlight” celebrates a vanishing form of journalism and of filmmaking]
A similarly haunted group home is the setting of “The Club,” a darkly sardonic film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín (“No”). Set in a small fishing village on the coast of Chile, the movie centers on four graying, disgraced priests who live under a form of home detention with their Pollyanna-ish caretaker, a young nun named Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers, the director’s wife).
One man is a weaselly, unrepentant pederast (Alfredo Castro, a regular in Larraín’s film’s); another is a former military chaplain complicit in war crimes (Jaime Vadell); one (Alejandro Goic) has been accused of abducting babies from unwed mothers, a real-life scandal that came to light in 2014; the fourth (Alejandro Sieveking) is too senile to even recall why he is there. As for Sister Monica, she’s not there simply to cook and keep house; she also has a history of child abuse.
All five spend their days in a regimen of activities consisting of meals, prayer, television and racing their greyhound, though not in that order. The dog — along with its training and prize money — seems to be the central focus of their existence.
Into this surreal retirement community come, in rapid succession, two uninvited guests. The first is another pedophile priest (José Soza), who has been pursued there by one of his now-grown victims (Roberto Farías), a deeply troubled man whose graphic public recitation of the priest’s crimes, shouted at the home’s front steps, precipitates an act of shocking violence. The second arrival is Father García (Marcelo Alonso), a Jesuit crisis counselor sent by the church to investigate the incident, and possibly — as the house’s residents fear — to shut the place down. Much of the film consists of one-on-one interviews between García and the often self-justifying occupants, whose evasive and occasionally downright deceptive answers make “The Club” feel like a psychological horror story at times.
Larraín is clearly critical of the church. “The Club’s” tone is cynical, bordering on the satirical, but it’s never very funny. Not that it should be. Toward the end, the film veers a bit out of control, as the residents engage in behavior that is incomprehensible, even given their previous transgressions.
More plausible is García’s response. True to the defensive nature of some of the church’s actions in the aftermath of recent abuse scandals, he comes up with a strange solution that keeps the newest problems of this “club” under wraps, while simultaneously arranging for a punishment in which the line between perpetrator and victim is blurred. García loves the church too much to ever want to hurt it, he says, in a line that echoes some of the rationalizations we heard from church apologists in “Spotlight.”
In both movies, the church is shown closing ranks around its own, protecting its reputation more than those it has harmed. At least in “Spotlight,” healing seemed possible. In “The Club,” both the aggressors and the aggrieved keep pouring salt in their own wounds, like the open sores of a flagellant.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity, graphic description of sex acts, violence, sex, nudity and other mature thematic material. In Spanish with subtitles. 97 minutes.