Foreign-Language Oscar Spotlight: The Unbelievable True Story Behind Argentina's 'The Clan'

Courtesy of K & S Films
'The Clan'

Pablo Trapero's Oscar hopeful follows the Puccios, who turned kidnapping and murder into the family business.

Police burst violently into a domestic scene in the opening frames of Pablo Trapero's foreign-language Oscar contender The Clan: guns flashing, women screaming. It was, sadly, not an uncommon sight in Argentina in the early 1980s, when the film is set. The mayhem was part of the MO of the country's military dictatorship: political dissidents, and often their families, were kidnapped and "disappeared" without a trace.

But after the police subdue the family in The Clan, the film shifts. An officer emerges from the basement of the house carrying a middle-aged woman — the real victim, a prisoner kidnapped by the family the police have just arrested. The woman is Nethelida Bollini, the last and only surviving victim of the Puccio clan.

Up until that night, on Aug. 23, 1985, everyone who knew them thought the Puccios were just another well-off family living in San Isidro, an upscale neighborhood of Buenos Aires. In reality, as it was later proven, they were a brutal, murderous criminal gang who kidnapped for a living, killing their victims after they received the ransom for their release.

Arquimedes Puccio and his two older sons, Alejandro and Daniel, were formally charged and sentenced on four cases (more were suspected, but never proven). Arquimedes' wife Epifania and her oldest daughter Silvia were investigated but never charged. Teenage son Guillermo was abroad at the time of the arrest — allegedly trying to escape from his own family — and he has never been found.

"The fact that friends and neighbors were so reluctant to believe Alejandro and his family were guilty was due to the fact that they were a socially integrated family: Arquimedes presented himself as an accountant; his wife Epifania was a teacher at a well-known school," Trapero tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Their oldest daughter, Silvia, was also a teacher; they had an active social life. Alejandro was a popular star player for [the country's national rugby team] the Pumas. Some of Alejandro's friends, or former friends, still believe it's all a big mistake and that 'Alex' was a victim of his father and wasn't involved."

Trapero told the story of one of Alejandro's friends and strongest supporters, who fought for his release, only to discover his name written in a notebook: he was one of Arquimedes' potential targets.

"There are lots of stories about characters living a double life, but usually it is lived outside the person's home," says the director about the true story behind his record-breaking Argentine drama. "This was a double life, in which the whole family was involved, and somehow forced to join in on. Obviously, everyone who was a proved to be a participant was an adult at that time: they could have chosen something else. This doesn't exonerate them or lighten their responsibility, yet clearly Arquimedes' first victims were his own children."

In the film, Guillermo Francella plays the bloody Puccio clan chief, who in real life was released in 2008. When Arquimedes learned about Trapero's plans for the movie, he asked the director to meet him to get the "true story."

"(His) 'true story' would have been to deny everything, as he did until the day he died," Trapero says. "But I would have liked to meet him." It never happened, though and Arquimedes died in 2013.

The Clan focuses on the last four years of the Puccio "family business" from 1982 to 1985 and the four kidnappings he would be tried for. But his crimes extended far beyond.

"Arquimedes' criminal life started rather early," says Trapero, who noted he left a lot out of the movie, both before and after the police raid. "He was suspected of participating in kidnappings all the way back to 1973." Arquimedes was linked to Anibal Gordon, an agent and government-backed kidnapper who targeted dissidents. They were members of the clandestine state-approved terrorist group Triple A, and to the shady Argentine state intelligence agency SIDE.

Trapero underscores how the rise and fall of the Puccio clan was tied to that of Argentina itself and its bloody political legacy. The director lays tracks of popular 1970s hits under the kidnapping scenes and splices in excerpts from news reels and presidential speeches. At the time of the police raid, in 1985, Argentina itself was transitioning from a murderous, criminal dictatorship to an initially shaky democracy. 

"Like many others, Arquimedes Puccio was a symptom of a society that allowed this (violence) to happen," says Trapero. "No one challenged him. This is a guy who kidnapped people using his family car, registered in his name. He felt immune, protected by the society around him. It took the end of an era to bring him to justice."