Guillermo Francella’s performance as Arquímedes Puccio, the cold-blooded Argentinian kidnapper at the head of The Clan, is one of the damnedest things you’ll ever see—and I do mean damnedest. Few actors have made evil so insidiously accessible. His bland, bemused expressions would equally suit a census taker or an undertaker. But the less smoke Arquímedes gives off, the more hellfire you know he’s holding in. It’s a classic edge-of-the-volcano characterization. During “the dirty war” waged by Argentina’s military junta, Arquímedes was part of the state intelligence network that caused dissidents to “disappear.” When the junta falls in the early Eighties (the era of this movie), he adapts their cutthroat methods to private enterprise.
The state apparatus may no longer be at his fingertips, but he’s still connected to political kingpins, some now behind bars. With the help of his affable star rugby-player son, Alex (Peter Lanzani), he’s positioned to target wealthy individuals and snatch them for ransom. He never releases them—too risky. His ruthlessness is part of his government service legacy.
Under the military dictatorship, it was families, particularly those who appeared in the potent 1985 documentary Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who protested the junta’s roundup of their sons and daughters and helped topple the government. Under the new civilian government, in The Clan, the rest of the Puccio family are enablers of a brutal patriarch—either they’re in cahoots with Arquímedes, or in denial. His wife, two daughters, and youngest son try to ignore the shrieks that ring out from a second-story bathroom or a makeshift dungeon in their middle-class home.
Arquímedes moves with the shambling authority of a sitcom dad. In one shot, he strokes his wife’s arm after she prepares a prisoner’s dinner, then goads Alex to switch off the boob tube. The boy removes his feet from the coffee table—unblocking his father’s path through the living room to the prisoner upstairs—in a petulant move that seems to sneer, “Make room for Daddy.” When Arquímedes gets pushed to breaking point, his fury is enough to freeze-dry Alex’s blood. In its own semi-anarchic way, The Clan packs a psycho-political punch.
Director Pablo Trapero, who also co-wrote the script, pulls off his share of show-off sequences without succumbing to empty virtuosity. In the most stunning and upsetting shot, Alex’s buddy and fellow rugby player Ricardo listens to The Kinks’ infectious “Sunny Afternoon” as he stops to give a lift to his pal, who says he’s run out of gas. When the shot continues, Ricardo chats about a couple of Scandinavian girls and the time he ran out of gas—until thugs in ski masks cut him off at a turn and shove Ricardo into the trunk of their car and Alex into the passenger seat. When the kidnappers rip off their ski masks, we learn that the driver is Arquímedes—and that Alex set up Ricardo. Few movies have conveyed the peculiar disorienting panics of ambush and betrayal as keenly as Trapero does in this sequence. The horrors expand for the audience as Arquímedes extends his list of victims and kills nearly every one.
To make Alex feel better, Dad pays him off in cash, then turns a family deli into an upscale windsurfing shop for the boy to run. Is that enough to numb the boy’s uneasy conscience? The open questions and general messiness of Trapero’s true-crime movie, including its befuddling time-hopping opening, are troubling yet integral to its vitality. Midway through, Alex’s younger brother says he’s leaving the family for good. We can understand that. But why does Alex’s older brother leave and then return? And how much do Arquímedes’ wife and daughters know, and when do they know it?
Trapero doesn’t structure his film as a series of investigative queries (in the manner of the late, great Francesco Rosi); he merely begs the questions. But The Clan does succeed at taking lethal aim at two global sacred cows: the sanctity of blood ties and the myth of “family values.”
Michael Sragowis a contributing editor to FILM COMMENT and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.