At the beginning of The Club, four men and a woman are living quietly in a small Chilean seaside town. Their days are filled with prayer and religious songs, but also wine and greyhound racing.
One of the house's residents, Vidal (Alfredo Castro) is devoted to the village's stray dogs, and has adopted one of them, Rayo. The greyhound has won a lot of pesos for the men, although they — forbidden to travel in public as a group — must watch their champion through binoculars. Monica (Antonia Zegers) is the dog's official handler. But then she takes care of just about everything, from changing adult diapers to scrubbing away spilled blood.
Vidal and Monica hope that Rayo will advance to the national championships. Then dog-racing suddenly becomes less important after the arrival, in quick succession, of three newcomers.
First is Lazcano (Jose Soza), soon revealed to be a defrocked priest — just like the other men in the house. Monica, a former nun, barely has time to explain the rules of this "place of repentance" before a burly fisherman (Roberto Farias) recognizes Lazcano. He loudly and explicitly describes the childhood sexual abuse he suffered from the cleric.
The confrontation ends messily, spurring the visit of the third man, Vatican fixer Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) — "one of those new priests," Monica says, distrustfully. The slick, cologne-wearing Garcia interviews each of the house's residents, with the likely goal of ending their agreeable post-disgrace existence. He pours out their booze, objects to their betting on dog races, and even tells them to get rid of Rayo.
Director and co-writer Pablo Larrain is best known in the U.S. for No, a relatively lighthearted 2012 account of the plebiscite that ended Augusto Pinochet's rule. His other films are darker, if equally concerned with the effects of the former dictator's rule.
When Garcia interviews the house's inhabitants, he hears tales of pedophilia and homosexuality, not always delivered with remorse. But two of the men have a different sort of backstory. Their priestly careers ended because of activities related to Pinochet's brutal reign.
Should these men be punished? And how can all the people who collaborated with a tyrant be held responsible? These are questions, in Chile and elsewhere, that resound far beyond one hideaway in one seaside hamlet.
To Monica, very nearly the Lady Macbeth of the drama, the house she runs is worth preserving. She choreographs a fierce climax that's as shocking to Vidal and Garcia as it is to the viewer.
Outbursts of violence aside, The Club is mostly mournful. The music, much of it by Arvo Part or Benjamin Britten, is characterized by funereal tempos and keening strings. The natural-light cinematography yields bright exteriors and shadowy interiors, as if divine illumination — the subject of the line from Genesis that opens the movie — can never reach the people who live inside the clubhouse.
The Club, winner of the Silver Bear at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival and Chile's pick for the 2016 foreign-language film Oscar, is admirable but arduous. Its vision of sin and repentance is sexually graphic and sometimes perverse, more Jean Genet than St. Francis of Assisi.
Yet the strangeness is leavened with humor, notably in the sly performances of Castro (a regular in Larrain's films) and Zegers (the director's wife). While the clubhouse residents are from a rather different world, their impulses and reactions aren't all that unfamiliar.