The Clan [2015] – A Gritty True Crime Tale

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There’s a sense of immediacy in Argentinian film-maker Pablo Trapero’s movies which puts us closer to the on-screen characters’ anxiety and suffering. He is best known for his long tracking shots, inviting us to be an intimate observer of the characters’ movements. Family loyalty is a predominant & recurring theme in Trapero’s films (“El Bonaerense”, “Rolling Family”, and “Lion’s Den”) and his protagonists wade into the thin boundaries of criminality, often stricken by their moral quandaries. With his recent pensive movies– “Carancho” & “White Elephant” – Trapero explored the irredeemably widened gap between the top one percent and the others. In his recent film, “The Clan” (aka ‘El Clan’, 2015) Trapero takes on one of his most ambitious project (from early research to final product, it took him eight years) which has turned out to be one of the Argentinian box-office sensation. “The Clan” has all the gritty, realistic elements that inhabited the director’s previous films, but there are also quick cuts and exhilarating technical maneuvers that remind of us the unbridled energy we find in Scorsese’s gangster films. It’s not the best movie in Pablo Trapero’s oeuvre, although it is a darkly entertaining feature with supreme performances.

The film is set in the early 1980s, in the waning years of Argentina’s military government. Between 1974 and 1983, the totalitarian regime killed thousands of political dissidents and anyone reported to be the supporter of socialism. The government termed this worst form of repression as ‘Dirty Wars’ (of course, US government had a big role in unleashing the junta rule). In the 1982-83 period, pro-democracy civic movements and the military government’s defeat in Falkland’s war resulted in the nation’s transition to democracy. “The Clan” chronicles the lucrative enterprise run by the Puccio family (a notorious real life criminal family) during Argentina’s most repressive times. The head of the family, Arquimedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella), an intelligence officer in the military government, kidnapped wealthy people for sizable ransom. He kept the hostages aka ‘guests’ in his spare bathroom or at the basement. The strings that pull Puccio’s ‘little business’ is revealed at an earlier instance, when the military commodore calls up for a secret meeting. Arquimedes had a very clear conscience, despite committing horrific acts (after getting the ransom money he killed his hostages in cold blood).

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Before the title rolls into view, we are introduced to Alejandro (Peter Lanzani), a very popular and skilled rugby player of the domestic club. After a victorious game, Alejandro parties with his teammates and that’s when he comes across his wealthy friend Ricky. Two weeks later, Ricky sets off in his car and surprised to see Alejandro, walking by the road. He gets in and says that his car has broken down. Ricky talks about girls while Alejandro gives him the directions. Suddenly, out of nowhere, another car blocks their path and couple of masked men with guns pulls out Ricky. Ricky is locked inside the car trunk as Alejandro is hooded and thrust in the front seat. As the car moves on, Alejandro takes off his hood and the guy in the driver seat does the same. The driver is Arquimedes Puccio who asks to Alejandro, “Are you ok? Alex?”; “I’m fine, Dad” replies Alejandro. The title appears at that occasion, suggesting that the film focuses on the conflicted relationship between this criminal dad and son.

Arquimedes’ wife Epifania (Lili Popovich) is a teacher who casually sets off dinner in a plate which Arquimedes takes upstairs into the spare bathroom, where Ricky is chained to the bathtub. In the next door, the youngest daughter Adriana (Antonia Bengoechea) has plugged in earphones and doing homework. Arquimedes had three sons and two daughters. Except for Alejandro and his younger, teenage brother Guillermo (Franco Masini), none were bothered by their father’s profession or who makes him bring these ‘guests’ to their house. The mother and daughters felt that Arquimedes is doing ‘things’ for the greater good of their family and country. Alejandro receives plenty of money for helping his father, but he only desires a peaceful life with his lover Monica (Stefania Koessi). Alejandro’s conscience is also deeply troubled especially after learning the eventual fate of the kidnapped members. The ‘business’ that was booming in 1982 for Arquimedes, ran into trouble, when democracy returned to Argentina through ‘Process of National Reorganization’. Arquimedes was reluctant to stop his enterprise, although the de-throned military officials had warned him. He believed that the good, old days of dictatorship will soon return. The going got grimmer, even though Arquimedes with a stern face repeated, “Everything’s all right”.

Director Pablo Trapero has done vast research into this subject. He has stated that through his research he found the connection between the family and shadowy side of military government. The case of this crime family was also an interesting subject because it was set in the transition period, unlike many Latin American films about right-wing dictatorships. And, the film is worth seeing even if you aren’t aware of Argentinian history and politics. Director Trapero has placed the father and son relationship at the core to give a broader context. There’s something allegorical in the corrupted, conscienceless stance of the father and uncontested stance of the son. It mirrors the unstable relationship between debauched rulers and their supporters. The term’ banality of evil’ pretty much fits the description of Puccio’s (or people supporting dictatorship), who went about their daily lives, looking away from the atrocities inflicted nearby. Trapero opens the movie in a very explosive manner as we see a quiet evening for a family is disturbed by law officials bursting through the front doors with guns and handcuffs. At that point, our sympathies are with Puccio family. But when Trapero returns back to this same (home-invasion) scene after unfurling each dark layers of the family, we get some sort of rude awakening.

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Visually, “The Clan” was the director’s sprawling &most stylistic movie. He frequently cross-cuts between scenes, finding thematic similarity or contradiction (Alejandro’s sexual intimacy with Monica is juxtaposed with his father’s casual preparation for a murder).  Director Trapero once again perfectly uses the unbroken tracking shots (during kidnapping scenes) to efficiently make us feel the uncomfortable proximity of Arquimeides & gang. This rich mise-en-scene has the flawless pace of some of the best sequences made by De Palma and Scorsese. There’s only little cozying up scenes to get closer to the family as we watch them tear themselves apart. There are no mistakes made to project empathy on Puccio family members. Trapero also poses a more complicated question of what we ourselves would do if we got guy like Arquimedes for a father. The question remains complicated because no clear-cut answers are provided. Trapero does choose to include catchy pop sings in the intense crime scenes. The intention, of course, was not to undercut the intensity but rather to lessen the dourness in the narrative. “The Clan” isn’t without unconvincing elements. Alejandro actions at times don’t make him an inwardly conflicted individual. He easily accepts the money his father tosses at him, totally lacking moral qualms. It’s also not really convincing when it’s said that the Adriana didn’t know anything about her father’s little work at the basement (the narrative is not just sticking to the truth, but proposing Adriana being innocent of complicity). Guillermo Francella who plays Arquimedes clearly overshadows Lanzani’s Alejandro. His self-centered and twisted world & familial view makes him the indelible character in the film, dwarfing Alejandro’s moral uncertainty. Francella who is better known as a comedian skillfully constructs an evil character without any gimmicks. He doesn’t deliver any chilling monologue about his devilish political beliefs; just that unperturbed looks evokes the much-needed intensity.

“The Clan” (108 minutes) doesn’t have a ground-breaking narrative or profound thematic weight, and is limited by its biographical material. Nevertheless, it is worth watching for its expertly designed visual fluidity and the grimly fascinating performance of Guillermo Francella.

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