Argentine powerhouse Pablo Trapero (“Carancho,” “White Elephant”) takes a case so upsetting many refused to believe it was possible and retells it in ghastly detail from the p.o.v. of the perpetrators in “The Clan,” a muscular, Hollywood-style account of the Puccio fiasco, in which a relatively well-to-do San Isidro family kidnapped their rich neighbors in order to extort ransoms from their relatives. Opening nearly 30 years after the Puccios’ sensational arrest, the film has been an explosive success back home, raising the bar for strongest opening ever for an Argentine film with half a million admissions in four days, before heading to competition berths at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, sure to propel this vicious Almodovar brothers-produced crime saga onto the world stage.
A clear factor in the pic’s success to date has been the near-total transformation of charismatic local star Guillermo Francella (“The Secret in Their Eyes”) into a stone-cold psychopath, carrying on the corrupt practices of a fallen dictatorship into the early days of a democracy he’s convinced won’t last. Whereas foreign auds could be considerably traumatized by the way “The Clan” turns them into unwitting accomplices in the abductions, Argentine moviegoers surely benefit from their familiarity with not only the notorious case but also the larger political context — both of which are boiled down to their essence in Trapero’s arresting, but not-helpful-enough prologue.
Kidnapping carries entirely different connotations in Argentina than it does in other countries, having been practiced as a matter of institutional control during the regime of Jorge Rafael Videla, whose fall in 1981 officially ended the state-sanctioned “disappearance” of an estimated 30,000 dissidents. Only, the abductions didn’t stop there, as former state intelligence worker Arquimedes Puccio (Francella) put his training to work in a new capacity, snatching rich targets off the streets and imprisoning them in his own home until their families coughed up the ransom money — except the victims never managed to make it back alive.
For years, the police Commodoro (who had presumably employed Puccio to do the same thing on their behalf mere months before) turned a blind eye, even going so far as to “protect” Puccio’s scheme — which would explain the sense of self-righteousness that makes Francella’s performance so compelling. Puccio was above the law, and he knew it, resulting in the blood-chilling dynamic Trapero enlisted co-writers Esteban Student and Julian Loyola to help dramatize: While clearly the film’s most sensational element, the crimes themselves represent only a fraction of the film’s focus, as the helmer turns his attention to the fearsome control Puccio wielded over his entire family, most notably his eldest son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani).
Though “The Clan” never quite succeeds at getting us to identify with Alex (as the subtitles call him), he’s the closest thing to an audience proxy here, pulled back in by Arquimedes’ control at precisely the moment he though he was establishing his own independence. Again, some of the film’s potentially tragic details — like a raucous post-game celebration with the rugby team to which he belonged or an insert shot of Hobby Wind, the water-sports business Alex opened just in front of the family home — will register with Argentine auds, while swirling by unprocessed by outsiders, making the next bit all the more shocking: While riding with teammate Ricardo Manoukian one afternoon, their car is ambushed and men with hoods force the two “kids” into the back of a sedan, forcing Ricardo into the trunk and Alex up front, where we discover that he’d actually been the bait.
It’s a terrifying encounter, filmed with the propulsive immediacy and virtuoso flair of a Martin Scorsese or Brian De Palma setpiece, unfolding against a full-blast classic-rock anthem and the Harley-like growl of the cars’ engines, both amplified for effect. Trapero’s ironic use of music ranks among the film’s most unnerving strategies, reminiscent of Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam,” in which celebratory pop tunes evoke the era even as they practically serve to encourage the horrors depicted onscreen. By the time we’re forced to watch the Puccio clan abduct their final victim, a 58-year-old businesswoman barely any wealthier than themselves, the inappropriately loud sound of David Lee Roth’s “Just a Gigolo” is enough to trigger violent reactions: We can’t watch the Puccios get away with it any longer.
Thankfully, they didn’t. After keeping the woman locked up in a basement cell for 36 days, the city’s Kidnapping Investigations Dept. finally managed to put the Puccios’ crimes to an end — a “finale” that the film teases from its opening minute and rather incoherently returns to at each time-skipping chapter break, all but canceling whatever suspense we might have felt about where this crime trajectory is headed. More fascinating to Trapero than the characters’ individual fates (which are ultimately provided via text onscreen) is the question of how Puccio managed to involve his entire family in the rackets.
Alex may have wanted to get married and start his own shop, but Arquimedes insisted that he carry on the “family business,” and Alex — who appears physically strong and confident with friends or g.f. Monica (Stefania Koessl) — was reduced to a simpering child in the presence of his domineering father. “The Clan” traps us in that same position, shooting tight enough for television (to the point we’re practically staring into the characters’ pores and can’t help being distracted by the period hair and costumes) and bombarding us with its overloud sound design. The style feels claustrophobic and conspiratorial, reminding that Arquimedes’ wife, daughters and children — who were clearly more than the “passive accomplices” the justice system decided — had nowhere to turn (though younger brother Guillermo manages to get out, leaving the petrified Alex frozen in shock).
The resulting effect is nothing short of a horror movie, the sort Rob Zombie or John Carpenter might cook up, wherein we’re forced to identify with the perpetrators while a criminal family carries on with what they do best: In one particularly heinous scene, Trapero cross-cuts between a victim’s agonized moans and Alex’s orgasmic encounter in the backseat of his car. The fact that the film premiered at the same edition of the Venice film festival as James “Whitey” Bulger biopic “Black Mass” marks an interesting coincidence, seeing as how the Johnny Depp vehicle has captured most of the attention, even though “The Clan” gives its star a more thorough opportunity to disappear into the skin of a hair and makeup of a monster — the difference being that the deadness behind Francella’s blue eyes is deliberate, not just a pair of bad contacts.