The first thing The Clan shows us is archival footage and historical text, establishing a rapidly changing political climate in Argentina. It’s a shakedown of the corrupt officials, who ran the country’s dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, while a democracy was being implemented. One would naturally imagine this governmental shift being a good thing for the citizens of Argentina, who lived under fear of military kidnappings and economic crisis. But this was not the case for the Puccios, whose patriarchal father, Arquímedes (Guillermo Francella), was employed by the fascist government, doling out their evil tasks and winning the spoils of their bad deeds. The film, of course, details what happens after he is expunged from his governmental role and plays as an unflinching indictment to the crimes he and his family committed from 1982 to 1985.
Strangely, the film opens in 1985 when the young son and his fiancé are raided by the police, but it quickly shifts back to 1982 at the height of the family’s criminal enterprise. It’s not a misguided choice, the director was very intent on showing us that this year, 1982, was the beginning of the family’s inevitable end. The family in question is comprised of a father, mother, three sons and two daughters. Epifanía (Lili Popovich), the mother, is a schoolteacher and is never outright said to be involved in the father’s dealings (as is most of the family), but is heavily implied to be. But Alejandro (Peter Lanzani), the middle son, is offered no such ambiguity, being specifically responsible for the kidnapping of one of his close friends. The film, more or less, details the moral dilemma he faces at the cost of the people around him.
Guillermo Francella as Arquímedes is an understated powerhouse. His bright, expressive features help emphasize a humanity beneath his cruelty. His father, assuming the head of the table, plays his role sternly and confidently. He is a caring family man but his notions on loyalty seem more akin to fascism than familial virtue. Alejandro, slowly integrating himself into his father’s criminal underworld, is visibly conflicted. But when Arquímedes gives him a thick stack of bills from one of the ransoms, we see on the young man’s face a childlike grin. Here, we’re introduced to an entirely new conflict that isn’t so one-dimensional. As the son reaps the benefits of his father’s ghastly crimes, we have to question whether the family, knowing of these crimes, are too guilty by association.
This quandary is further emphasized in a memorable segment where Arquímedes is brutalizing a kidnap victim, edited between close-ups of Alejandro and his girlfriend, Mónica (Stefanía Koessl), in act of lovemaking in his car. It’s a sullen juxtaposition that shows the price on one’s pleasure coming at the cost of another’s pain and suffering. Perhaps it’s a disquieting statement on the cause and effect nature of crime. The director Pablo Trapero’s vision is bold, but also begs a troubling question. Do the edits act as a way to maximize effect, or minimize consequence? I do not question his intent, but rather his means, and whether it was truly his intention to understate the psychology of each victim. Or perhaps to make a point of keeping us at arm’s length from the crimes, as Arquímedes did with his family.
The crimes themselves, which involve several kidnappings, are riveting. They are played for stark realism. The sound effects are enhanced, car doors slamming, breaks being applied, etc. Also, the camera seems to be confined and only passively observes what transpires, relinquishing its power to the characters on screen. Underlying these sequences is rock music, a stylistic choice which at first feels like the film trying too hard, either to specify a time period or elucidate a tacky callback to Goodfellas (dir. Martin Scorsese). But it becomes something more when we see a radio playing the same music in Arquímedes’ house. The volume is cranked to muffle the sound of a woman’s screams in their basement. It’s a grim reminder of the times, that no matter how much culture cultivates, overpowering them are the horrible atrocities being committed in their midst.
Last year saw two gangster films released, Legend (directed by Brian Helgeland) and Black Mass (directed by Scott Cooper). Like The Clan, both films are well-acted docudramas, carrying to the screen histories and exploits that made for intriguing news headlines. But unlike The Clan, neither truly flowed, both had a lot to say about the true stories they depicted, but nothing to say as compelling cinema. Watching either was like reading a novel with a bunch of footnotes, without a cohesive storyline piecing them together. Whether The Clan was completely accurate or not is irrelevant, because as a film it simply works. The third act is perhaps the best segment in the film, forcing its characters to confront their morals in the face of imprisonment. It taps into the type of mentality no exposé or news story can provide. The Clan shows us evil being committed, but not before showing us the ugly human face behind the ugly inhuman one.