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Arts feature

A film that dares to suggest that paedophile priests may be capable of holiness

Damian Thompson admires a Chilean film about paedophile priests which, unlike Spotlight, dares to explore social and psychological complexities

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

A feature film about priests who abuse children is being released on 25 March. Which happens to be Good Friday.

Geddit? The sacrifice of the innocents. A conspiracy of religious hierarchs. Hand-washing by the secular authorities. I’m sure I can think of some more analogies if you give me time, but that’s enough to be going on with. Enough, certainly, for the distributors to boast that the movie is ‘controversially slated to be released on Easter [sic] Good Friday’.

As publicity stunts go, this isn’t subtle. But the film is. The Club, directed by the Chilean Pablo Larraín, sets out to perplex us from the first frame until the last.

It’s one of the finest films I’ve seen for years: a masterpiece of ambiguity that dares to suggest that the abuse of children by priests, though always morally repugnant, is psychologically and socially complex. If it wasn’t, the Church would have found a way to extinguish this fire long ago. As it is, nothing seems to work.

The Club takes us to the ends of the earth: a desolate fishing village in Chile where four disgraced priests live in ‘a house of repentment’, as the subtitles put it, where both ‘self-flagellant activity’ and ‘self-inflicted pleasure’ are banned. They are watched over by Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers, the director’s wife), a youngish nun who is atoning for her own sins.

We see her kneeling, as if in prayer, then realise that she’s helping an old priest vacate his bowels. He can barely speak, presumably the victim of a stroke, but we can’t work out whether he’s senile or indeed guilty of anything: he just pitched up at the house decades earlier.

Arguably there was a time when these retreat houses served some sort of purpose. They don’t work now that people know about paedophile priests.

The household disintegrates in the first minutes of the film. A fifth priest called Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) arrives, pursued by a drifter called Sandokan (Roberto Farías) who stands outside the house and shouts details — more explicit than you can imagine, unless you have a truly filthy mind — of the sex acts this priest performed on him.

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Sandokan gets a job in the village and hooks up with a local woman who reels back in disgust when she realises that he wants her to do what Father Garcia once did to him. Because, despite everything, Sandokan loved his abuser.

The plot of The Club is nasty in places, but the people and the landscape are so corroded by the elements that the viewer just shrugs: the suicide of a priest is less shocking than the killing of two greyhounds.

And nothing we see is quite so unsettling as the possibility that the priests and their guardian are still capable of holiness. It would help if we knew exactly what they’d done, but they’re not saying and neither is Larraín.

This is where The Club is uncomfortably true to life and other films about sex abuse by priests aren’t. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t even nominated for a foreign-language Oscar while Best Picture went, absurdly, to Spotlight, based on the Boston Globe’s devastating exposure of the nurture of paedophiles by the city’s archdiocese.

That investigation was a fine piece of work. It deserved better than Spotlight’s awful screenplay, in which reporters spent most of their time running between libraries and lawyers’ offices, pausing only for ritual expressions of watercooler irony.

This was Hollywood’s first big film about the Catholic abuse crisis, yet it gave us no more than a glimpse of the perpetrators. Given that the latter have cost the US Church $3 billion and unpicked some of the oldest fabric of American society, you’d hope for at least one convincing portrayal of an abuser priest.

Has any English-language drama risen to that challenge? In Doubt (2008), Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, a twinkly-eyed school chaplain in the Bronx who is driven out by the ferocious headmistress, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). It’s a clever film based on a stage play by the director, John Patrick Shanley. The year is 1964. The sporty, mischievous priest sniffs a wind of change in the Church and likes it; the battleaxe nun is stuck in the past. Yet she’s the one who rescues the boys whom Flynn gets drunk on altar wine before seducing them.

That’s not so much of a paradox as you might think. Some of the worst monsters uncovered by the Globe were ‘go-ahead’ clergy for whom ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ encompassed camping trips with pretty boys. That’s not a theme stressed by Spotlight, which never explains why the ultra-conservative Cardinal Law of Boston sheltered hippy villains. Nor is it acknowledged in documentaries such as HBO’s Mea Maxima Culpa, which wheels on left-wing commentators to settle scores with the conservative Vatican.

Doubt doesn’t fall into that trap. We know that Flynn’s relaxed gospel is tangled up with his malignant desires. But that is as far as we can get. The mask, if there is one, is never peeled back. The priest’s charm is impenetrable, even when he is telling Sister Aloysius how guilty and conflicted he feels.

That charm is the hallmark of the conveyor-belt abuser, and it will never be better portrayed than by the much-missed Hoffman. The problem is that not all priests or brothers accused of sexual wrongdoing fit into this mould.

I’ve never met a textbook paedophile like Father Flynn, though I don’t deny they exist. But I have met gay priests who were sex pests after a few drinks; priests who were removed from their parishes after historic complaints, then brought back with a clean bill of health but no-smoke-without-fire muttering in the pews; priests accused of crimes but neither tried nor rehabilitated; priests caught with huge stashes of gay porn who, if they hadn’t been leering over it, might have been abusing children.

Who is guilty of what? Even if we knew, the narratives are too messy to attract funding for a big-budget feature film. There are no Oscars in paedophile ‘grey areas’.

And that suits the Catholic Church. It’s tired of investigating borderline cases and so terrified of the media that innocent clergy falsely accused by compensation-hunters are left to swing in the wind. The hierarchy would rather deal with monsters, many of whom are conveniently dead.

Hence the Vatican’s endorsement of Spotlight: Catholics have been positively encouraged to go and see the film. But The Club has received no such imprimatur. Sex abuse in Chile is the last topic it wants discussed right now. Last year Pope Francis appointed Juan de la Cruz Barros, a bishop accused of the concealment of gruesome paedophile crimes, to the southern diocese of Osorno; he’s also set up a tribunal to look into episcopal cover-ups but inexplicably failed to appoint anyone to it. But, hey, he’s a ‘reforming’ pope with ‘enlightened’ views on climate change. So Hollywood will leave him alone.

The Club (18, key cities) is released on 25 March.

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