A group of banished priests have their idyllic golden years upended in this amazing Chilean drama.
Last year saw the release of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, a film about The Boston Globe’s investigation of the systematic cover-up of pedophilic priests by the Catholic Church. It’s a challenging watch given the subject matter, and McCarthy finds a balance in his film that never sugar-coats or cheapens the crimes it profiles for dramatic points. But Spotlight is not nearly as challenging as The Club, a drama that looks at child abuse by the Catholic clergy from the perspective of the accused.
The latest offering from Chilean director Pablo Larraín focuses specifically on four accused priests living out a Church-mandated exile in a quiet Chilean beach town, run by a former nun with baggage of her own. Although sequestered and living within rules that prohibit most contact with outsiders, the Fallen Five make the most of their circumstance by training a greyhound to become a champion racer. Going into the film, viewers know, at least at a high level, the heinousness of the subject matter (the priests’ past actions are eventually revealed in greater detail), and yet Larraín manipulates right out of the gate. The setting is a beautifully cozy hamlet and its denizens are as non-predatory as they can get. They are four charming old men living out their golden years breeding a race dog on the beaches of Chile, all the while being mothered by a charming older woman and living in relative harmony in a delightful yellow house. It’s serene.
Then BANG—Larraín reminds you of the seriousness of the situation with a scene so uncomfortable (and seemingly endless in the most unsettling of ways), followed by a moment so shocking yet so utterly genuine, that I audibly gasped.
The situation upends the four priests’ lives when The Vatican intervenes in the form of Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), whose goal is to investigate the incident, investigate the people living in the house, and ultimately shut the place down. As circumstances unfold, however, Father Garcia’s task might not be as easy as he thinks.
Larraín’s film takes on a procedural tone, creating an interesting (and compelling) dynamic. It sets up a good guy/bad guy construct with the clergy as the bad guys and Garcia as good. But the bad guys here are otherwise so likable, and Garcia, with his interrogations, stricter living conditions, and goal of shutting down the house, is just off-putting enough to be unlikable. Eventually, the rooting interests become blurred, and then Larraín’s skills truly shine as he slowly builds two very specific cases.
The first is the case against the Fallen Five. Despite their dark collective past, they continue to make questionable choices in the lives they lead after living in service to the Lord. There are hints of this poor behavior early on. They lie to the police about the event that kicks the story off, but the lies are told to protect themselves; they snoop through Garcia’s personal things, but they do it to understand his intentions so they can better shield their interests. They also drink and smoke and gamble, and while these things aren’t illegal, they too fit into a certain pattern of behavior: sin. Minor, at least at first, but sin nonetheless. The viewer might miss it though because Larraín, like a magician, distracts with the obvious transgressions—including the child abuse—and when no one is looking, he carefully layers these other, smaller things into the characters’ routine actions. They might be subtle, they might be acts committed for self-preservation, but they are still acts of varying degrees of wrong. It’s on this foundation of the flawed nature of humanity that Larraín makes a more difficult case, one that’s less pro-Church and more anti-anti-Church.
Because these five people have engaged in a lifetime of recidivist behavior and, as the film progresses, the sinful acts they commit increase in both selfishness and severity, the Fallen Five show that they have learned nothing while in exile. Larraín makes it clear that the problem is with the person, not the Collar, nor the Habit, nor the higher institution they once served and represented. The presence of Garcia reinforces this case, who represents the good amidst this sin. Not only is he tenacious in his investigation of the quintet, he tries early to break them of their more pedestrian transgressions. It appears as punishment but it’s actually an effort to redeem. By the film’s end—an end that highlights his monumental compassion—Garcia’s actions, and in particular the goodness of them, stand in stark contrast to those from the collective he has been sent to investigate. It isn’t about his Collar, it’s about his Christianity.
But have no illusions: this film is no mea culpa on behalf of the Catholic Church. And while it takes place in exile on the beaches of Chile, that doesn’t make the core subject matter any different than that of the story told by Spotlight in the parishes around Beantown. Despite that similarity and the familiar procedural strains, what Larraín does with The Club is more daring and direct than McCarthy’s film. It’s also more thought-provoking, as it goes beyond the expected (and warranted) knee-jerk reaction to the crimes committed, adding a facet to the subject that is worthy of consideration and onscreen treatment.