Pablo Larrain's latest film about a group of disgraced priests refuses to offer easy answers

This week sees the release of two films that focus on far-flung Christian communities thrown into chaos by past crimes and misdemeanours. Much the better of the two is The Club (★★★★, 18 cert, 97 mins) from Chilean director Pablo Larraín. His previous films, including Tony Manero and Post Mortem, have brilliantly explored Pinochet’s reign of terror through the stories of characters at society’s margins. Here, his target is the Church and the main characters – a group of Catholic priests living together in a bleak coastal corner of Chile – are about as marginal as you can get.

The film begins with a new cleric arriving at the house, swiftly followed by a crazed hobo screaming accusations of abuse at him. The priest’s jolting reaction sets the tone for what follows as the abused man comes to haunt the churchmen’s sanctuary. Another arrival, a senior prelate, disturbs the men’s relative peace even further. Each priest is apparently guilty of a criminal act or of breaking Church rules, and the official is out to prove that the dull but comfortable existence the men have fashioned for themselves is far from an appropriate punishment.

As these two strands lurch forward and darken, Larraín tackles weighty questions about penance, justice and the way the Church discharges its duties, refusing to offer easy answers or take a clear moral stance. The ragged abuse survivor stands as a deeply disturbing symbol of all those so badly treated by the men who were meant to be their protectors. Yet the priests are also presented as humane figures. To some extent, they are victims of an unfeeling ecclesiastical bureaucracy and their individual guilt remains hard to determine. But they are never sentimentalised or let off the hook.

There’s a sludgy greyness that infects the film’s entire palette, from the Chilean countryside to the pallid skin of the priests. The choice of colour perfectly encapsulates the queasiness that watching The Club induces. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Scottish drama Iona (★★, 15 cert, 82 mins) suffers badly by comparison, lacking both the power and precision to fulfil its arty ambitions. The titular character returns to the island where she grew up (and after which she is named) with her teenage son in tow.

A terrible crime has been committed back on the mainland and Iona hopes to find sanctuary amid the Christian community she once was a part of, and apparently had to leave in disgrace. Pregnant pauses and scowling are mistaken for profundity, while the plot is muddled and underwhelming. The religious presence on the island is there simply to imbue proceedings with a sinister edge. It’s a hackneyed trope and, like the rest of Iona, it fails miserably.

This article first appeared in the March 25 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here