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A spiritual inquiry into hearts and desires  

08 April 2016

Stephen Brown sees recent film releases

A group apart: the household of disgraced priests in The Club

A group apart: the household of disgraced priests in The Club

THE name of the film Iona (Cert. 15) can mean “Blessed”, but watching it gives off more of a feeling of being cursed — by loss, bad memories, present danger, and God-forsakenness.

A young woman, Iona (Ruth Negga), returns to the Hebridean island of her birth with a 15-year-old son, Bull (Ben Gallagher), after burning their car on Mull. Iona had, to everyone’s astonishment, inexplicably left in a hurry 15 years earlier. The plot follows the age-old dramatic device of someone entering a closed community, which sets off various alarm bells.

Iona gives very few clues to what has occurred in the past or indeed now. This is partly because of minimal dialogue. We are seven minutes into the film before anyone speaks. Slowly (far too slowly for some viewers, I imagine), we are given opportunities to piece things together.

Perhaps there would be less mystery if the film now on release hadn’t lost nearly half an hour from the version that closed last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. As it now stands this is a spiritual inquiry into human hearts and desires. Flashbacks indicate that Iona and Bull are looking for somewhere to hide, but escaping earthly authority is one thing; hiding from heavenly powers is another.

Despite hostility to God, she attends Iona Community worship with her son and the family of Daniel (Douglas Henshall), who has befriended them. Bull attempts mouthing the hymn “Light of the world, You step down into darkness, Opened my eyes let me see”. Iona remains silent.

Does the lady protest too much? People have long been visiting this island to feel close to God; so it’s strange that Iona considered this, of all places, somewhere to avoid the One from whom no secrets are hidden. In effect she, through pain, fear and anger, maintains a dialogue with the God whom she believes has forsaken her, helped, it would seem, by the island itself.

While she has ostensibly discarded belief in God, the surrounding sea persistently invites Iona to experience what psychologists (long before Freud) described as an “oceanic” feeling of spiritual interconnectedness to the world.

Rarely does anyone smile or laugh in Iona. The austerity of daily living is continually in your face as islanders go about back-breaking jobs such as picking strawberries or repairing stone walls. Religion is often portrayed as severely Calvinistic. There are also moments when Celtic spirituality bursts through, as when prayers are said over a girl’s poorly foot. Overall, the joyfulness of Christianity as mediated through the Community’s worship doesn’t get much of a look-in.

Nevertheless, as with the director Scott Graham’s critically applauded debut Shell, he examines his characters’ loneliness in spite of living in a caring community with plenty of space to breathe. If fears, desires, or tragedy threaten our stability, that’s exactly when we need to seek places of holiness where we can feel blessed, and in which even miracles may occur.


IN THE CLUB (Cert. 15), it takes a few minutes before we are made aware that the four men living in a secluded house in Chile are disgraced priests. They own a greyhound that wins races and money for them. The people of the small seaside town keep their distance, and vice versa.

In fact, it is a condition that an embarrassed Church imposes, protecting its own as well as itself. By being hidden away, at least some of these clerics may have avoided prison. Each has been sent to this place to purge sins from the past. They live according to a strict regime under the watchful eye of a female caretaker, a former nun, Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers).

The fragile stability of their routine is disrupted by the arrival of a fifth man, bringing with him reminders of pasts they thought they had left behind. It gets far more difficult to keep the lid on things after this newly disgraced companion, Fr Lazcano (José Soza), blows his brains out in the front garden after a young local fisherman, Sandokan (Roberto Farías), who remembers the abuses he suffered at this priest’s hands, shouts about it for all to hear.

Enter Fr García (Marcelo Alonso), the trouble-shooter who wants to close the place down as discreetly as possible. The residents, however, have other ideas, including Mónica.

What I appreciated about the way these errant priests are portrayed is that they remain real human beings, neither monsters nor pantomime villains. Their rationalisations of past behaviour are on occasion plausible. The part played, for example, in passing the babies of overburdened mothers to affluent childless couples is seen by the priest concerned in terms of acts of mercy.

The film starts with a text from Genesis 1: “And God saw the light was good and separated the light from the darkness.” The challenge is discerning which is which at times during the film. Garcia is some kind of Grand Inquisitor with a moral seriousness that often segues into an institutional protectionism that lacks compassion or even understanding. In a case of doing a wrong thing for a “right” reason, he engineers with Mónica a cruel means of removing from the priests what he considers a different kind of temptation. This has devastating results.

The director, Pablo Larraín, is careful not to judge anyone in The Club. He is clear that this isn’t an investigative docu-drama along the lines of the Oscar-winning Spotlight (Arts, 29 January). Rather, his film holds up to us the mystery of human behaviour. Its grainy look challenges us to identify what is light and what is dark. Just as in Tony Manero, Post-Mortem, and No, he obliquely tackles the Pinochet years and the thousands who went missing. Whether Larraín now is referring chiefly to delinquent priests who “disappeared” from public office or their childhood victims is a moot point. Those boys may be missing from this film, and yet the remembrance of them is grievous to those watching, if not always to the men who abused their positions of power.

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