'The Clan' (El Clan): Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Slightly uneven but undeniably transporting.

The latest film from Argentinian director Pablo Trapero ('Lion's Den'), headlined by local star Guillermo Francella, is a true story about a family of violent kidnappers.

Based on a horrific true story and already breaking box-office records in Argentina, Pablo Trapero’s The Clan (El Clan) looks at the comfortably middle-class Puccio family, whose family business, in the early 1980s, consisted of kidnapping people even richer than themselves. Headlined by local star Guillermo Francella, from Oscar-winning The Secrets of Their Eyes, who plays the Puccio paterfamilias with the cold eyes to perfection, this Venice and Toronto competition title combines the trappings of a family chronicle with shades of film noir. Though Trapero never seems quite sure whether he’s telling a father/son tale or painting a full family portrait, this good-looking and well-acted drama should nonetheless also prove very popular at festivals and in arthouses in the Northern Hemisphere. The fact the film’s produced by the same outfits that made Wild Tales an international phenomenon can only help.

The Clan opens with a quick sketch of the political situation in Argentina in the early 1980s, when the country was trying to leave its dictatorship years behind and return to a form of democracy and normalcy. The grey-haired Arquimedes Puccio (Francella), however, still seems to know a few people in high places that might protect him in case of need. His family’s just big enough to warrant the film’s title, with the clan also consisting of his matronly wife, Epifania (Lili Popovich), a teacher; their rugby-star son, Alex (Peter Lanzini); younger and more sensitive teenage kid Guillermo (Franco Masini); girls Silvia (Giselle Motta) and Adriana (Antonia Bengoechea) and the eldest son, Daniel (Gaston Cocchiarale), nicknamed Maguila.

After an all-too-brief — especially for foreigners completely unfamiliar with the Puccios — flashforward to 1985, the film proper opens three years earlier, when Maguila was still in New Zealand, a fact Arquimedes bitterly resents. It’s quite clear why: He’s the kind of man for whom families, or at least the matriarch and the male members of the family, do everything together. Alex is thus roped into helping kidnap a wealthy friend he knows through his rugby club (the reason behind this first kidnapping remains kind of vague). Transported back home and chained to a pipe in the bathroom, he’s fed Epifania’s cooking until his family is ready to pay the demanded ransom.

In an impressively played sequence, Alex finds out that the release didn’t go according to plan from his teammates, who explain to him that the ransom was paid but that their buddy has been found dead. The semi-comforting words of his father after dinner that night — "We had no choice, he threatened to destroy our family!" — mark the total loss of innocence of Alex. But instead of rebelling, he follows his father’s lead, with Arquimedes making sure that Alex gets his part of the profits, both in cash and by opening a store of surf gear for his son. Killing their victims after the ransom’s been paid subsequently becomes a family habit.

Trapero and co-editor Alejandro Carrillo Penovi are extremely fond of crosscutting between the practicalities of kidnapping someone, often performed by Arquimedes, and more quotidian activities, especially those of Alex, who trains for the upcoming rugby championships and meets a girl, Monica (Stefania Koessl). Frequently set to loud, upbeat songs that provide a counterpoint, such as the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, these scenes suggest how kidnapping became simply a part of life for the Puccios. It’s never clearer than in a daring montage sequence that matches Monica’s cries of ecstasy during a bout of lovemaking with the cries for help of a kidnapping victim in the family’s home. For these folks, there’s seems to be a mighty fine line between love and cruelty.

The screenplay, by Trapero and the duo Esteban Student/Julian Loyola (who co-wrote Chronicles of an Escape), is clearly most interested in the dynamics between Alex and Arquimedes but the film has trouble concentrating on just the two of them and widens its view on more than one occasion, though not in any coherent way. Maguila’s return, for example, sets up a more triangular relationship. It comes about after Epifania, in her single big scene, suggests to Alex that he should try to get his brother to come back to please their Dad (he’s still angry at Alex for not participating in a new kidnapping scheme). Guillermo has one major moment with Alex that's perfectly played and that feeds into an important decision for Alex. On the other end of the spectrum, the boys’ two younger sisters remain too much on the periphery. A little more on how they are forced to pretend they don’t know what’s going on in their own home would have been welcome. (The idea that what’s going on in the Puccio household is shady is mainly expressed through cinematographer Julian Apezteguia’s dark and saturated visuals and the percussion-heavy score.) 

There are no false notes in the ensemble but Francella, with dyed grey eyebrows, and Lanzini, saddled with black sideburns the size of dead mice, are clearly best in show. And the film finally gives audiences the long-awaited confrontation between the two in a strong sequence toward the end, when they violently thrash out their issues. With just a few quick brushstrokes, Trapero here manages to suggest that Arquimedes might be even more diabolical and cunning than even his own son realized, which makes him so angry and ashamed that his subsequent, desperate action makes a tragic kind of sense. 

Production companies: Kramer & Sigman, Matanza Cine, El Deseo

Cast: Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzini, Lili Popovich, Gaston Cocchiarale, Giselle Motta, Franco Masini, Antonia Bengoechea, Stefania Koessl

Director: Pablo Trapero

Screenplay: Pablo Trapero, Esteban Student, Julian Loyola

Producers: Hugo Sigman, Matias Mosteirin, Agustin Almodovar, Pedro ALmodovar, Ester Garcia, Pablo Trapero

Executive producers: Pola Zito, Leticia Cristi,

Director of photography: Julian Apezteguia

Production designer: Sebastian Orgambide

Costume designer: Julio Suarez

Editor: Pablo Trapero, Alejandro Carrillo Penovi

Music: Sebastian Escofet

Casting: Javier Braier

Sales: Film Factory

 

No rating, 108 minutes

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