Mar 19, 2016
To paraphrase Tolstoi, all Latin American governments are corrupt, but each one is corrupt in its own way. And there is something particularly cold and cruel about the Argentinian moral rot as evidenced in this thoroughly disturbing film. This is one incredible and terrible true story.
This movie hinges on one central revelation and has a couple of surprising turns, so you may want to read the rest of this review after you see the film.
Arquímedes Puccio (the astounding Guillermo Francella) is a shady character who seems to have worked for the military in the days of the disappearances of thousands of innocent Argentinian civilians. When democracy is installed, he's out of a job, or needs to keep a low profile, so he finds a profitable occupation, which is to kidnap rich people for ransom.
But this is no mere criminal enterprise. He and his accomplices are aided, abetted and protected by a higher up in uniform that goes by the name of the Commodore. Trapero takes this lurid story and makes it into a potent fable about the unfathomable corruption that infects every aspect of his country. In this movie, except for one character, who eventually also chooses to look the other way, no one is blameless. As is typical of corruption, it's all about connections, favors owed and even blood ties. Everyone is enmeshed in filth.
I noticed that the characters invoked the word "patria" - fatherland - in the movie several times. This is no coincidence. The Clan is a story of toxic fatherhood. Mr. Puccio is not only a deadly father to his children, but he is the embodiment of the poisonous fatherland. The clan is not only his family; the clan is the vast network of people who collude with lawlessness. It's the social unit that greases the wheels of society. As in other Latin American films like Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero, the implication is that if you quietly assent, if you look the other way to maintain the status quo, you are not far from guilty.
In his rationalizations, Puccio represents the mentality of the Argentinian military fascists and their supporters, who truly believed they were protecting their country from communists, atheists, and radicals. He truly believes that the masterful manipulation and co-opting of his entire family (a wife, two daughters, and three young sons) to help him with his dirty job is for their benefit. Anyone who is not with him is an ungrateful traitor. He is the personalization of dictatorship.
Trapero dramatizes the conflict between his son Alex (Peter Lanzani), a gifted rugby player who is just starting his own life, and Puccio's designs, who like any sociopath, needs to spread his tentacles and coerce accomplices to be effective.
Puccio is cold and ruthless, and as attentive to his daughters as he is harsh and contemptous with his sons. He is a master of psychological abuse and manipulation. He is indifferent to Alex's triumphs and worse, he berates him and blames him when things go wrong. He is incapable of admitting weakness or error. He is undaunted in his arrogance. He seems to detest the kid but to make sure he doesn't lose his grip on his son, he gives him a ton of ransom money so he can open his own business. Once Alex accepts the reward, he has no choice but to keep participating. Puccio has absolute power. No one dares stand up to him. This is how corruption and amorality work.
I can't think of anything more despicable than collecting a ransom and murdering the victims anyway. But that is Puccio's M.O. He is a heartless liar. Because he is middle class and has sent his kids to tony schools and rugby clubs, he knows that no one will ever suspect him or his perfect family. He seems to relish making his extortion calls in broad daylight from very public phones. He kidnaps people he knows. He has no compunctions. But despite his extraordinary arrogance, there is one scene in which we realize he is a small fish in a big pond, and that there are bigger sharks to whom he owes everything. Like all such abusers of power, he is a nobody.
He seems to hate young people. He hates his son's youth and sense of possibility, the idea that he might have a different life from his deeply compromised existence. And in this, he reminds me of the dictatorship, which went after young Argentinians with a vengeance, because they had long hair, or listened to rock, because they were vulnerable to ideas of social justice or thought that they had a right to personal freedom. He seems to loathe what his son might become if he manages to get out from under his thumb and he does everything in his power to prevent this.
Francella gives the performance of a lifetime. He may very well be the worst father in the history of movies. He makes Darth Vader look like Bambi.
Trapero is best at exhibiting the psychology of this tyrant, who seems as acutely attuned to how to bend his family to his will as he is unaware of or unconcerned with the trauma he causes them. The rest of the characters are harder to understand. Perhaps this is deliberate. We still don't understand how ordinary Germans acquiesced to Hitler's raving hatred. Still, while I respect Trapero for not falling into the easy choice of making Alex into a rebel (that would be the American version), placing Alex as Puccio's direct antagonist begs for a more equal contest. Alex could be heroically passive aggresive or pathologically subservient. As is, he is weak and afraid and his father swallows him whole. By the time Alex reacts, it is shockingly late.
The script avoids exposition, letting the audience find out creepy details with subtle hints. For instance, Mrs. Puccio is a good housewife and apparently excellent cook who happens to be a schoolteacher. A schoolteacher! How perverted are things when the woman you entrust your children to is a willing accomplice to a kidnapper and a murderer? She is completely immoral. The hypocrisy of saying grace before a family meal when they have a victim screaming in the basement is one of the many ways in which Trapero shows the warped ideology of the far right.
The story is unbelievable. The aftermath to the story, told in titles in the closing credits, is as harrowing as the movie itself. The cast is excellent and the sense of moral gangrene is powerful.
But Trapero displays a heavy hand, particularly with a rock music soundtrack that distracts the audience from the lurid immediacy of the story. I understand that Trapero uses these songs to ground us in the period and provide some irony, but he should have trusted that the most bitter ironies are in the story. I also find it interesting that we go in expecting a thriller and we are faced with a very disturbing political fable, which in a way, is better. But I wish that Trapero would have used a little more of the rigor and discipline of a thriller and less overwrought stylistic flourishes. Still, the horror is not in the suspense, but in the mindset of this Puccio monster and of the society that allows him to happen.