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Review: ‘The Club’ is an offbeat look at the lives of disgraced priests

Alejandro Sieveking, left, Alejandro Goic, Alfredo Castro and Jaime Vadell in "The Club."
Alejandro Sieveking, left, Alejandro Goic, Alfredo Castro and Jaime Vadell in “The Club.”
(Music Box Films)

Whether “The Club” sparks a hesitant compassion toward the fallen or a gurgling despair regarding misguided justice, either response is perfectly understandable. That’s the queasy territory that politically minded Chilean director Pablo Larraín (“Tony Manero,” “No”) operates in with his story of four ex-priests living together in an out-of-the-way house on the edge of a sleepy seaside town. Their ascetic, ritual-driven reclusiveness, overseen by a nun, wasn’t chosen by them — it’s a purgatory of sorts imposed on them by the Church for alleged sins. (If you’ve seen “Spotlight,” imagine that right after the reporters learn about the Catholic Church’s “sick leave” designation for pedophile priests, it cuts away to this movie.)

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The padres lead a restricted life of praying, gardening and minimal outside movement. Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro) spends time training a greyhound, but it’s supportive Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers) who takes it to the track to race. Their hermetic world is disrupted, however, when a recently disgraced new housemate, Lazcano (José Soza), arrives, and a local fisherman (Roberto Farías) stands outside and loudly catalogs — in graphic detail — the abuse he suffered by him as an altar boy. The Vatican follows up by sending a crusading counselor, Father García (Marcelo Alonso), to possibly shut down the house. Armed with a tape recorder, García tries to get the men, by turns obtuse and arrogant, to face up to their crimes.

This is a gray, inquisitive and occasionally sardonic movie about self-policing and self-delusion, its existential malaise not entirely separated from the scarred remnants of Chile’s terrible past under Pinochet. Larraín, who wrote the movie with Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos, approaches the material like a scientist both fascinated and cynically bemused by how a particularly virulent sickness operates. The priests, whether in watchful solitude or giving pitiful testimony as to how misunderstood they are, are often framed dead center with just a smidge of distortion, like specimens smushed under glass. It’s an art movie touch but never feels out of place.

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At a certain point, though, Larraín loses confidence in the chilly, claustrophobic strangeness of his scenario and stirs in a vengeance-driven confrontation that gives the third act an unfortunately deterministic air. Up to that point, “The Club” captivates as a biting, offbeat trip inside a uniquely desolate spiritual prison.

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‘The Club’

In Spanish with English subtitles

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Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

No rating

Playing: Landmark NuArt, West L.A.

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