In a secluded house in La Boca, Chile a small seaside town, four unrelated men live together with the woman who tends to the house and their needs. The men are former priests who have been sent to quiet exile to purge the sins of their pasts. Separation from their communities is the worst form of punishment by the Church. The men keep to a strict daily schedule devoid of all temptation and spontaneity and each moment is a deliberate effort to atone for their wrongdoings.
The fragile stability that the men have found there is disrupted by the arrival of an emissary from the Vatican who seeks to understand the effects of their isolation and he brings with him a newly disgraced housemate. Both bring with them the outside world from which the men have long been removed, and the secrets they had thought deeply buried. Director Pablo Larraín’s black comedy is commentary on individual responsibility, organized religion and the combustible combination of the two. In fact, thinking about it calling this film a black comedy is a bit too mild—perhaps better said is that this a macabre story about infringements within the Catholic Church. It is quite the bizarre tale about a cloister of ex-Catholic priests holed up within the confines of an isolated seaside monastery. Relocated out of circulation as punishment by the church, the disparate men have all the comforts of an unassuming retirement home community on the church’s dime.
The four men are Alfredo Castro, Jaime Vadell, Alejandro Goic and Alejandro Sievekin and they are under the watch of the friendly Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers). Joining them is Father Lazcano (Jose Soza) but before Lazcano can even check into his room, introductions are interrupted by a stranger shouting obscenities about being molested by the Father. The new member of the club promptly commits suicide, instigating an investigation from Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), indicating the church may be looking for a reason to close down the convalescent home.
Initially, all of these men appear quite normal, seen playing with the communal dog on the beach before gambling at the local racetrack. It is a surprise to learn they’re a criminals and their crimes range from baby snatchers to garden variety pedophiles that have been sent to isolation rather than relocated to another parish. If the men eventually seem a bit out of touch, Sister Monica is meant to watch over them and she is wonderfully nutty and does her best to distract the interrogations of Father Garcia, the church representative threatening to destroy their new home. The film, at times, descends into a surprising bout of madness, where innocent creatures take the brunt of punishment thanks to social transgressions.
Alfredo Castro gives a stand out performance as an ex-pedophile, who matter-of-factly admits and asserts hid homosexuality in order to help broaden his sexual horizons to the grown victim of Father Lazcano’s, a man who keeps hanging around the priests’ sanctuary. The church’s handling of its own “lost boys” is pragmatic and we see that allowances are secretly and insidiously made for privileged insiders.
Monica is an ex-nun and she cares for them without judgment and with affection. Some may find the movie to be verbally shocking, visually stark and deeply upsetting and I believe that was the director’s plan. When the four find themselves being investigated and questioned by another man of the cloth, the priests begin to feel both suffocated and exposed. Determined to make the men understand that they are in a house of repentance rather than in a comfortable retirement home, the new investigator brings chaos and conflict to the household which spirals out of control when past sins and crimes continue to haunt them. It is almost impossible to be unaffected by the film and because it is so dark, there is laughter during it.
We hear sordid dialogue and vivid descriptions of child abuse, sexual abuse and perversion. We deal with questions about judgment, guilt and denial as the film struggles to get beneath the surface of its troubled characters. It seems as though Larrain forces to go inside the walls of the house and to feel that we are trapped there like the characters in the film. There is indeed a sense of claustrophobia and grim existence in this very slick movie. As it nears its end we have questions about redemption and resurrection but we do not get peace of any kind. This is not a film for the faint of heart. it certainly does not let you relax.