Thursday, February 4, 2016

Another look at wayward priests

A difficult, perplexing and punishing movie from Chile.

Just what the Catholic Church needed, another reminder about wayward priests.

Like it or not, Chilean director Pablo Larrain has weighed in on the issue of church scandals with an odd and difficult movie that focuses on four defrocked priests, a nun, an inquisitor from the Vatican and a greyhound dog.

The movie's quintet of exiled religious rogues lives in the isolated coastal town of La Boca. They've been sent to this sleepy, seaside village for a mixture of punishment and penance -- and to be hidden from public view.

Things seem to be going smoothly enough until a new resident arrives. The others rightly see the presence of this recently defrocked priest as possibly disruptive. It doesn't take long before one of the town's fishermen -- a former altar boy -- is outside the house screaming at the new arrival, describing -- in excruciatingly graphic detail -- the way in which he was sexually abused.

Clearly disturbed, the priest responds by shooting himself in the head.

That's a bit of a spoiler, but you should know that most of the movie involves the repercussions felt by these sinning priests and the wily nun who tends to them.

The situation becomes critical when another priest -- this one a representative of the church -- arrives to conduct an investigation.

It should be noted that the men are free to leave; they're not prisoners; they've consented to this strange banishment, a situation in which none totally admits to wrongdoing. They seem to reinforce their communal sense of denial.

The priests still observe Catholic ritual, but they allow themselves one diversion: They train and race a lone greyhound, putting their winnings aside for expenses.

Larrain tries to see these priests in clear-eyed fashions. They're flawed men burdened by bitterness, defiance, self-aggrandizement and, in one case, dementia, but they're not particularly remorseful.

The former altar boy, whose relentless taunts echo throughout the movie, wobbles his way through the story as the church's representative conducts his inquiry.

It takes some time before we get any sort of handle on this interrogator, who has his own ideas about how to balance compassion with the institutional need of the church to insulate itself from scandal.

I can't say that I totally understand the ways in which Larrain plays with symbolism; a bizarre and difficult to watch late-picture event -- part sacrifice, part punishment -- makes a cruel piece de resistance to a cruel, arduous and, I'm afraid, perplexing exercise in bleakness.

Larrain's movie is commendably serious, but it also brims with the kind of rabid determination that feels as if it's rebuking those who might raise even the mildest of objections to its thoroughgoing rancor.

Of course, no one approves of pedophile priests or a clergy that collaborates with torturers, but The Club seems to regard aberrant behavior as an excuse to flagellate not only the movie's characters, but the audience, as well.

If I had to articulate a point to all of this, it might be that every status quo will go to great lengths to preserve itself and those whose interests depend on it, and that, in the process, there will be pain.

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