“The Clan” is a gripping and highly disturbing Argentine thriller that apparently hues as close to a true-life story as one can in the realm of fiction. Indeed this is perhaps the fact that disturbs a viewer the most — director Pablo Trapero is making none of this up.
It takes a while for you to orient yourself in the who-where-how of the story and Trapero does you no favors in his opening scenes by jumping around a bit in time and locations.
But the gist of the tale is soon clear enough: the military dictatorship that ruled and nearly ruined Argentina came to an end with the 1983 appointment of a democratically elected president. This brought to a halt the country’s “dirty war,” in which government-sponsored kidnappings caused more than 30,000 people to “disappear” forever.
The family in the eye of the movie’s storm is headed by Arquimedes Puccio, a sociopath with the steady heartbeat of an accountant. Evidently he had been a government operative with the former regime and still has ties to his former associates, some of whom are now in jail.
Yet he sees no reason not to continue to apply his skills for personal profit. So with his gang he is snatching wealthy people for ransom, warehousing them in the dank cellar of his middle-class Buenos Aires home and then killing them once he receives his money. (Releasing captives is too risky apparently.)
He then drags his middle son Alex into his schemes. Alex is a top rugby player in school with a promising future in the sport. But Arquimedes needs his help to grab a rich teammate. When that teammate turns up dead, Alex goes into shock: He can no longer fool himself about what his dad does for a living.
By rights, the movie should be about how Alex copes with his moral dilemma; the focus should be, in American movie-gangster terms, on the seduction of “The Clan’s” Michael Corleone character.
Yet Guillermo Francella, who plays Arquimedes, makes such a compelling monster, painting such a mesmerizing portrait of pure evil lurking in the heart of a seemingly everyday, mildly pleasant family head, that he dominates the movie.
Peter Lanzani, who plays Alex, certainly claims plenty of screen time as he has a romance that turns into an engagement to a bright and pretty young woman and he continues to lead his team into battles on the rugby pitch.
But his dilemma, the bitter conflict that must be churning his stomach in nearly every scene, slides to the sidelines. Even as he wrestles with this existential challenge, he continues to slavishly go along with his dad’s murderous schemes. Father Knows Best I guess.
Thus the movie’s central enigma never gets resolved. In a quirkier movie, say by Quentin Tarantino, even more could have been made of a father going over homework with young daughters, kids trying to watch television and family meals preceded by Catholic prayers all the while victims’ screams drift up from that downstairs dungeon.
Does anyone in the family think this is an unusual sort of family life?
Why does Alex continue to go along with dad? Why does the youngest son understandably take his leave and never return to this grotesque family while the eldest son returns from an overseas job to rejoin this circus of cruelty? Why does the wife pretend to not know what is going on in her very household?
Why, why, why?
I suspect Trapero and his co-writers, Julian Loyola and Esteban Student, don’t mean to answer these questions. This story is well known to Argentine audiences as the case still reverberates in that society, perhaps like O.J. Simpson does in ours. Every viewer there has his own answers.
But for a foreign viewer, “The Clan” is unsettling in its curiously aloof depiction of events without any real emotional investment in characters themselves and certainly not in the bigger picture of how governmental crimes against humanity can continue underground in a society so thoroughly corrupted and debased by institutional evil.
This is what occasionally happens when movies cross borders: what makes sense to local audiences may puzzle foreign ones not on intimate terms with cultural and historical references.
“The Clan” is a very good thriller on its own terms with terrifying sequences in which Trapero makes efficient use of American pop songs playing over the action and with a truly stunning climatic shot that takes your breath away.
Francella’s performance alone is worthy of study by anyone interested in how acting can come across with much greater force when one eschews histrionics and attention-getting devices.
Yet the feeling this non-Argentine viewer took away from “The Clan” is of a brilliantly made film that never satisfies or resolves any number of questions the movie raises.
Opens: March 18, 2016 (Twentieth Century Fox)
Production companies: FOX INTERNATION PRODUCTIONS presents a KRAMER & SIGMAN FILMS, MATANZA CINE and EL DESEO production in association with TELEFÓNICA STUDIOS AND TELEFÉ
Cast: Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovich, Gaston Cocchiarale, Giselle Motta, Antonia Bengoechea, Gastón Cocchiarale, Stefania Koessi, Franco Masini, Fernando Miró
Director: Pablo Trapero
Screenwriters: Julian Loyola, Esteban Student, Pablo Trapero
Producers: Agustin Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar, Esther Garcia, Matias Mosteirin,Hugo Sigman, Pablo Trapero
Executive producers: Leticia Cristi, Pola Zito
Director of photography: Julián Apezteguia
Production designer: Sebastián Orgambide
Music: Sebastián Escofet
Costume designer: Julio Suárez
Editors: Alejandro Carillo Penovi, Pablo Trapero
R rating, 108 minutes