This powerful and disturbing film from Chile is set in a retirement home “for priests who can no longer serve”. Although it is naturalistically shot, the setting — a down-at-heel fishing village with a house on the hill containing terrible secrets — has the all-pervading malevolence of a horror movie.
Pablo Larraín, whose previous films include 2012’s powerful anti-Pinochet drama No, captures a tone in which moral corruption is coated in layers of hypocrisy and cant. The four priests, supervised by a nun, are living out their existence by the sea, training their greyhound. “Their hearts are clean… We lead a holy life,” says the nun.
A new priest, Father Matias, is introduced into the house, but he has been recognised and followed. In a shocking scene a man stands outside shouting graphic descriptions of the sexual acts he was made to do as a boy by the priest.
The crisis that follows means the secrets of “the club” could leak out and bring about its end. A new priest, Father García, is sent to look into the events and into the running of the house. We find out a little more about the priests’ murky pasts and involvement in the crimes of the regime. Even the nun has secrets.
García wants to know if the priests repent their sins. Despite being told, “this is a place for prayer and penance and repentance”, they all seek to justify their past actions, refusing to see anything they have done as wrong.
Matias’s victim, Sandokan, is scarred by his childhood experiences. “I wasn’t sinning, because they were men of the lord” he tells García. Always drunk, his need for vengeance is like a time bomb waiting to destroy the club.
The priests are terrified of being made to answer for their actions. They may have to go to prison or the church might close their home. Everyone becomes more and more reckless and desperate as each one denounces the others.
The youth and beauty of Father García (Marcelo Alonzo) contrast with the other priests who are seen as decrepit and deformed by their sins. We will him to uncover all the wrongs of “the club” and make them atone. He is also in a position to help Sandokan overcome his pain by recognising the crimes done to him and holding the perpetrators to account.
As well as an indictment of the church, the film is also an allegory in which “the club” represents our ruling institutions – including the army and the family. Larraín is telling us these aspects of society are not only oppressive but degenerate and disfiguring. García represents the possibility of reform but can he be relied upon?
Special preview screening and panel discussion, Curzon Soho, Monday 21 March, 6.20pm.