“The Club,” Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s oblique allegory about clerical criminality in the Roman Catholic Church, begins with a familiar quote from Genesis 1:4: “God saw that the light was good and he separated the light from the darkness.” Enigmatic, atmospheric, and seductive, the film unfortunately sheds little light on subjects that have too long been hidden in the dark.
The title refers to a group of four priests in a house overlooking the ocean in a Chilean village. At certain angles, the house looks like it belongs on a horror movie poster. Adding to the unwholesome atmosphere, each priest has the disreputable look of a bishop in Luis Buñuel films. As it turns out, each represents a different vice, of which the sexual abuse of minors is only the most obvious. And then there’s Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers), the creepiest nun on screen since Vanessa Redgrave in “The Devils” (1971), who oversees the inmates and does housework.
Accustomed to isolation, the seedy group unexpectedly receives three visitors in as many days. The first, a new resident, doesn’t hang around very long. The second is a bearded young tramp who calls himself Sandokan (Roberto Farías); he stands outside their door and shouts obscene and terrible accusations. And the third, Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), comes from the Church hierarchy with an assignment to investigate the retreat and the clerics who live there.
There’s a lot for Father Garcia to go over. As the politically savvy Larraín makes clear, the history of Chile offers plenty of opportunities for the weak in spirit and the perverse in soul to go astray, beginning with the years of the Pinochet regime and its murderous reign of terror.
Then again, how much on the level is the supposedly upright inquisitor, Father Garcia? As a member of the “new Church” (presumably referring to the reforms of Pope Francis), he bears unconcealed contempt for the four fallen priests. But his own motives prove to be less than transparent.
So, too, are those of the filmmaker. The second half of the film edges toward the baroque with assorted Christian allusions, quirky plot twists, and erratic characterization. Shot with a near monochromatic, low contrast palette, often blurred except for occasional moments of backlighting or vivid color, the cinematography evokes unease, uncertainty, and obscurity. However artful Larraín’s intentions, these are subjects best regarded with clarity.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Pablo Larraín. Written by Guillermo Calderón, Larraín, and Daniel Villalobos. Starring Roberto Farías, Antonia Zegers, Marcelo Alonso. At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. Unrated (descriptions of heinous sex crimes; animal cruelty; beatings; messy gunplay). In Spanish, with subtitles.