A shaggy-haired man stands outside a secluded home for exiled priests. He shouts about masturbation, abuse and penetration—appalling acts, presumably inflicted on him by one of the priests inside. While he continues to yell, five innocuous-looking, grey-haired men watch through the windows. They say nothing, unsure of what to do. They are horrified, embarrassed and perhaps a bit titillated. Whoever these supposedly pious men are, they are not average clergymen. When one of them picks up a gun and walks outside, the men assume he intends to fire a warning shot. A few seconds later, the gun goes off, but it’s not pointing where it should.

This is exactly the sort of the scene that director Pablo Larraín knows how to direct. Building suspense through the wordless puzzle of human behavior, his style is controlled, gently suspenseful and highly atmospheric. In No (2013), a Chilean ad executive crafts the campaign for voting Gen. Augusto Pinochet out of office. Larraín deftly showed how quickly a political message for freedom becomes another consumer product. In The Club, his latest, Larraín is once again concerned with how ideology plays out in the lives of ordinary citizens. This time, it’s four priests and a nun who have been partially banished by the church for unspecified wrongdoing. It’s a portrait of remorse and the dangerous forms it can take. Though artful in execution, it’s also like walking through one of the grey clouds that hangs over the priests lives: moody and unsettling, but without much to hold onto.

Along the rocky shores of the small Chilean town where The Club takes place, god is nowhere to be seen. The sky is dark, the ground is wet and the people mostly keep to themselves. The four priests dedicate most of their days eating, drinking and watching TV. Instead of penance and prayer, most of their thought and energy is devoted to the training a greyhound dog for racing. The film opens on a sequence of the dog running along the beach. The animal is strikingly fit—an explicit symbol of animal innocence.

When the priest’s lives are disrupted by the shouting man and the gunshot, a representative from the archdiocese sent to investigate. He is Padre Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) and there’s a good chance he intends to shut down the priest’s home. Interviewed by Garcia one-by-one, the priests begin to take shape as individuals. Padre Vidal (Alfredo Castro) is a fey, well-mannered man and when he claims to have only entertained thoughts of same-sex companionship, it’s believable. Vidal wears the face of torment. Did he rape a boy or not? It’s impossible to tell.

Padre Garcia tries his best to get the priests to talk but they’re loath to share with a man they don’t trust. Garcia is young and handsome and he wears designer cologne. The priests in “the club” might have abused children and yet, with his conspicuous consumption and allegiance to hierarchy, Garcia is the one who seems like a monster. Adept at tackling ethical ambiguity, Larraín exposes the impossibility of separating good from evil; light from dark.

In addition to following Garcia and the priests, Larraín continues to track Sandokan, the impoverished man who shouted rape (Roberto Farías). He’s a wanderer, ostracized by the community and without money, clean clothes or a place to sleep. He’s a sympathetic figure but Larraín holds him up like a prop and he is never fully developed. He’s a scar in the background of the priest’s lives; a reminder of their past transgressions. Beyond that, it’s hard to tell.

Padre Vidal begins to shadow Sandokan in secret. His reasoning for doing so isn’t clear but it’s intriguing to watch. Eventually, the slowly stewing plot culminates in a night of unwarranted violence. The actions of the characters seem as random as they are provocative.

The topic of child abuse in the Catholic Church isn’t new. We saw it in Doubt (2008), Deliver Us from Evil (2006) and more recently, in last year’s Spotlight. We’ve also seen nuanced depictions of religious hypocrisy on both sides of the pulpit. It comes as a relief, then, when Larraín tackles the topic from an angle we haven’t seen before. Making a bold attempt at seeing what goes through the minds of condemned priests, The Club is ambitious, though its vision is limited. Larraín privileges mood over content and as a result, the film wears on the senses. As the priests navigate a hazy moral ground between guilt and complacency, Larraín turns their lives into art. It’s an investigation into the lives of lost men. One only wishes it had a little more direction.

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