Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 18, 2016 3:22 pm 
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The few successful years of a criminal family

The essence of Trapero's The Clan, a sort of Argentine "Sopranos" with a touch of The Godfather, is the elegant, serene face of the distinguished actor Guillermo Francella (The Secret in Their Eyes) as two-faced Arquímedes Puccio, devoted family man, arch criminal, cold sadist. When the stream of horrific Argentine dictatorships ended in the early Nineteen-Eighties, Arquímedes, a member of "Intelligence," was out of his job as the brutal "Dirty War" came to an end -- the last days of the juntas. This is a true story about which not all is clear, but it's possible Arquímedes had been "disappearing" people for the government. It would be an easy transition for him from aiding a brutal regime to being a full-on criminal, kidnapping for ransom. So that, for a few years, the focus of this movie, is exactly what he did. Trapero, whose accomplished films tend to be rather grim, adds considerable bustle and flair to this one, which turns into the portrait of a criminal family. But the underlying facts are as ugly as anything he has ever depicted. The creepy part is that Arquímedes turns his crimes into a family affair, enlisting several of his sons (he has three, and two daughters, and a wife whose cooking is found delicious) and his victims are kept prisoner at the house. Could anyone in the house not have known? But as in "The Sopranos," Arquímedes is the perfect family man.

Trapero's The Clan is a highly professional (and ghoulishly entertaining) rather than great movie. It tells the chilling, astonishing story of the Puccio family in Buenos Aires in the early Eighties whose patriarch went on kidnapping folks freelance after the horrible dictatorship stopped, for personal gain, charging a million in cash dollars US, but killing the victims anyway. (The actual ransom collected was lower than in the movie.) There is nothing else quite as good as the long tracking shot (given away, alas, in the trailer) where Arquímedes goes through the house, telling everyone dinner will soon be ready, and carrying a tray that he winds up delivering to the terrified, chained prisoner in a closet. We see the victim held at home, with sons, daughters, and wife going on as usual.

Most visible among Arquímedes' offspring is his the boyishly handsome, bushy-haired Alessandro, known as Alex (Peter Lanzani), a star rugby player for both the local and the national teams. Alex is very cooperative, even though his assistance in his father's kidnappings puts his career in grave danger. The first victim is one of Alex's friends. When he discovers the friend has been not returned after collecting the ransom but instead murdered (by Arquímedes, execution style), he is horrified. But what can he do? Two of the brothers leave the country to get away from all this, but one, Maguila (Gastón Cocchiarale) returns, overweight, and begins helping dad with his "work." The youngest son, Guillermo (Franco Masini) goes off on a sports trip and does not return; he urges Alex to do likewise, but Alex is in too deep, and has his future wife, Monica (Stefanía Koessl) to think of.

Another odd piece of intelligence we acquire is that the public telephones in Buenos Aires, at least the ones Arquímedes uses to communicate with the families of his victims, are pink. He uses some of the ransom money to replace the family deli with a nice shop selling windsurfing equipment, and this is where Alex meets Monica.

Times change, the police ally no longer cooperates, and the entire family gets rounded up and Arquímedes and Alex put away for a long time. Endnotes explain what happened to everybody. The female family members went on living in the nice house in San Isidro.

This is a handsome production enlivened by a lot of loud period pop music and enhanced by excellent performances by Francella as the patriarch Arquímedes Puccio and Peter Lanzani as his very cooperative rugby star son Alex. There are several memorable sequences besides the dinner-delivering tracking shot, such as a brutal kidnaping intercut with Alex having hot sex with his future bride in the back of his car. But the most memorable image remains, in closeup, simply the serene, confident, rather regal face of Arquímedes: smug sadist, dutiful family man. The performance is a quiet triumph for Guillermo Francella, one that overshadows all others, though the hunky, baby-faced Peter Lanzani, with his big hair, makes quite an impression, even if he's not fully convincing as a star athlete.

Though eventually the truth must come out, it's not true at every point how much the girls and wife know. Perhaps the facts of the story are unclear, and Trapero and his writers wanted to leave it alone: but the failure to play with this question and tease out possibilities as the crimes unfold is a missed opportunity. (But see the detailed summary of the film in Wikipedia.)

This film might invite comparison with Pablo Larraín's first three set in Chile, focused on the downfall of Salvador Allende in 1973 and the period of the subsequent dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This one is more conventional and less atmospheric, than those, but what's going on in Trapero's film is just as creepy. Trapero just does not capture the national mood as Larraín does, focusing more on the crime story. This struck me throughout very much as a "process" film.

It's said that all the 45-year-old Trapero's films are different, focused on many social issues. I can hardly comment since I've seen only two others, the odd 2006 Born and Bred and the grim 2010 Caranho, about car accident fraud. His 2000 El Bonaerense, about police corruption, has also been praised, as well as his 2012 White Elephant, which debuted in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, about priests fighting corruption in a Buenos Aires slum, featuring top actor Ricardo Darín (also featured in Carancho) and Belgian actor Jérémie Renier.

The Clan/El Clan, 110 mins., debuted at Venice 2015, winning the Silver Lion; it also showed at Toronto and some other important international festivals. It opened in France 10 February 2016: AlloCiné press rating 3.4. Les Inrocks' Vincent Ostia thought he tries too hard to be the Argentine Scorsese, and this shows in the over-jaunty pop music. Better the delicious gloom of Larraín's first two films. US release 18 March 2016.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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