While explorations of literal crime families have become somewhat passé ever since “The Sopranos” redefined them so well, few come with the political backdrop or allegorical strength as Pablo Trapero’s Silver Lion award-winner, “The Clan”. The fragile hopefulness of Argentina’s turn towards democracy following the military dictatorship’s collapse in 1983 serves as the framework for an unbelievable true gangster story that clearly owes a lot to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” stylistically, from its use of classic rock to the way it balances grim violence with dark humor. These qualities, along with a mesmerizing lead performance, are what propel the film beyond Trapero’s inability to reconcile his directorial strengths with the bizarre material at his command.
Through casual eyes the Puccio family, the titular clan, seems like the model of upper middle class respectability. Underneath it…well, that’s something totally different. Family patriarch Arquimedes (Guillermo Francella) gives the impression of cool reservation, but in his chest beats the heart of a sociopath. He had been part of Argentina’s totalitarian government that was embroiled in what it called the “Dirty War”, state-sponsored kidnappings that disappeared thousands. But with the regime decimated and democracy taking shape, Arquimedes has figured out his skills can still be put to good use for more personal gain.
Arquimedes recruits his kin into the family business like a Dad passing down his pizza shop. His son Alex (Peter Lanzani) is the one we spend the most time with, as he’s the one with the brightest future and seemingly the most to lose by engaging in a life of crime. A rugby star with long curly locks that would instantly make him a sex symbol, Alex uses his easy charms and connections to wealthy sports families to find future targets; sometimes intentionally and other times less so. What’s clear is that in Argentina’s shaky financial climate the kidnapping business is definitely booming.
As the dictator of his own little family, Arquimedes inspires a culture of willing acceptance to his evil crimes; screams and wails from his captives, or “guests”, can be heard throughout the home while others, such as Arquimedes’ loving wife Epifania (Lili Popovich) go about their lives like nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, on the outside world amongst the upper-class community, an air of fear permeates as they all expect to be the next one taken. Trapero, a serious dramatic filmmaker, creates an atmosphere of unbelievable terror, underscored by the family’s cold detachment from the heinous acts they’re committing.
But things change once Alex realizes just how psycho his father really is. As people he knows, some even friends, begin to die, Alex grows disillusioned at the illegal enterprise. However, Trapero doesn’t focus much on this storyline which seems like it should be the centerpiece. Instead, Alex’s seduction back into the family is incredibly simple and poorly explained, while the icy Arquimedes and his demonic charms slide to the forefront. It’s great in that Francella’s performance is riveting and ranks right up there with some of the best criminal patriarchs ever. But on the other hand, the movie’s central moral conflict is never really dealt with, much less resolved. As the film tries to paint Alex as a conflicted Michael Corleone-esque character it doesn’t have the foundation to support such a notion. Also, while Trapero comically contrasts the Puccio’s violent crimes with catchy rock tunes such as “I’m Just a Gigolo” and The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon”, it doesn’t always feel like a natural fit for the director, whose approach is generally less flashy. That said; he does a bang-up job cross-cutting timelines, beginning with a frenetic home invasion that looks like one thing, but turns out to be something completely different by the movie’s end.
Produced by the same people behind “Wild Tales”, the Oscar-winning film that so easily made disturbing acts worthy of a good laugh, it’s easy to see where the inspiration for “The Clan”‘s tone comes from. And while it’s incredibly effective as a crime picture and look at Argentina’s dubious steps into democracy, the questions it raises are as casually disregarded as Arquimedes’ many victims.