Film Review: The Clan

Based on a sensational crime story from 1980s Argentina, in which a former intelligence officer uses his skill to supplement the family income.
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Pablo Trapero’s The Clan is ostensibly a true crime drama, based on the lives of the late Arquimedes Puccio and his family, who lived in a northern suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It has been 30 years since Puccio, his sons Alejandro and Daniel, and three unrelated accomplices were convicted and jailed for kidnapping and murder. Despite the lapse of time, this criminal ring still captures the popular imagination in Argentina. Puccio was a former member of the country’s intelligence agency during the seven years of military dictatorship that preceded democratic elections in 1983. An estimated 30,000 Argentinians “disappeared” in that government’s “Dirty War.” Between 1983 and 1985, some of Puccio’s associates were still around, and the ring pursued their grim undertaking with impunity.

Puccio abducted four wealthy victims, and held three for ransom in a basement room in his home in San Isidro, where presumably his wife and four children could hear their arrival, and their later cries of distress. Trapero chronicles the fate of all four in The Clan, beginning with the first, a member of Alejandro’s rugby team. Alejandro (Peter Lanzani) entraps him, thinking that his father (Guillermo Francella) will simply collect the ransom. Little is known about the roles family members played in the crimes, but Trapero hints at various levels of involvement and awareness. For instance, Epifanía (Lili Popovich), Puccio’s wife, cooks for her family and, as Trapero suggests in the opening scene, presumably prepared meals for the victims. The eldest daughter, a teenager, admits to Alejandro that she hears the cries of at least one victim.

All the Puccios benefitted from the ransom money, especially Alejandro, whom at one point in the film is paid cash by Puccio for his participation in a kidnapping. While Alejandro and Daniel received jail terms along with their father, as they do in The Clan, Epifanía and her two daughters were released. In real life, Alejandro died while on parole, the eldest daughter died from cancer, and Daniel disappeared after his release. The youngest daughter, who is now in her 40s, is often referred to as “the innocent” on TV news shows in Argentina. She lives with her mother in the family home in San Isidro.

In the movie, Alejandro is portrayed as living in fear of his psychopathic father. Trapero depicts their relationship with great authenticity, painting Puccio as a masterful manipulator. He tells Alejandro that it is his money and influence that landed him on the country’s rugby team. Whether this is the case, or simply hyperbole on Puccio’s part, it has the desired effect: Initially, Alejandro abandons his marriage plans and bends to his father’s will. At first, the film’s political overtones are unmistakable, the crimes harkening back to the Dirty War, yet for international audiences the movie remains a crime story, and in that genre, Trapero’s characterization of Puccio is too lean. Except for his unconvincing Mafia don diatribe at the beginning of The Clan, about the importance of family, the film consistently fails to explain why Puccio turns to kidnapping. Rather than the psychological thriller one might expect, The Clan is a senseless and sanguinary depiction of criminal behavior.

Trapero’s previous film to receive U.S. distribution, Carancho (2011), is a vivid portrayal of institutionalized fraud in Argentina through the story of a lawyer who steals his clients’ insurance benefits. The flaw in that screenplay is similar to the one in The Clan: Sosa (Ricardo Darín), the main character, lacks a backstory and a motive for his crimes. Like The Clan, many of Trapero’s films are set in Buenos Aires, including El Bonaerense (2002), named for the inhabitants of the city, Carancho (“Vulture,” 2010), and White Elephant (2012), the latter about priests who work in the barrio. If Trapero’s screenplays are wanting, his visual style is not. He is a meticulous filmmaker whose framing and use of sound are often brilliant.

In The Clan, the music, sometimes mixed at an earsplitting volume, louder than the underlying dialogue, is of a bygone era, and possesses an air of indifference, or signals the breakdown of social norms. Trapero’s use of “Just a Gigolo” is one example, not a song that would immediately come to mind for a movie like The Clan, but in the lyrics the gigolo bemoans the “part I am playing.” Certainly, kidnapping is a “part,” albeit a diminuition of Puccio’s previous government position. More significant is the fact that Puccio and the gigolo are signs of cultural dissolution. The family business relied on the complicity of corrupt local authorities, and on the apathy or inertia of neighbors who claimed not to know.

“Clan stories,” fueled by a belief in the impossibility of escape, find their greatest expression at the movies, where one five-second close-up of Puccio’s blank stare yields film memories of dozens of “dons,” allowing filmmakers to skip characterization and complex plots. As long as viewers do not expect the Trapero of El Bonaerense, where virtuoso filmmaking was matched by content, The Clan can be appreciated for Lanzani’s performance as Alejandro and, in a smaller role, Popovich as Puccio’s wife. Francella (The Secret in Their Eyes) possesses a certain screen presence, but it is not from a talent for acting. Rather than true crime, or the film noir style of Carancho, The Clan takes its inspiration from gangster films where the blood flows more easily than the dialogue, and film editing, for instance, can consist of crosscutting a sex scene with a kidnapping. Apparently, Trapero liked the similarity of the groans.

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