A story so nuts it could only be true, Pablo Trapero‘s “The Clan” is the second of two heavily Scorsese-influenced tales of real-life gangsterism to crop up in Venice this year. But it’s a superior film to Scott Cooper‘s “Black Mass” in its examination of the mechanics of tribalism and loyalty within an organised criminal enterprise, and it has brought Trapero this year’s Silver Lion for Best Director. That award is somewhat surprising, as the film feels more slick and capable than necessarily hugely inspired, but the sensationalist story it tells and its fascinating setting in Argentina mere moments after the 1983 collapse of the military dictatorship more than compensate. Best of all, the film is about the wider society of the time and the political corruption and ruthlessness that lingered like a hangover to mar the nascent democracy, but it is also the incredible story of a single family —the “clan” of the title— and so it has both sprawl and intimacy, as well as a certain degree of allegorical power, in which the family’s corruption mirrors that of Argentina in those unstable years.
The film opens explosively as a young couple’s quietly domestic evening is violently interrupted by what appears to be a home invasion —it’s a flash forward scene we’ll return to late on in the film when what we’ve learned in the interim casts a very different complexion on our sympathies. After that rude awakening, we spin back in time and begin to tell the initially innocuous story of the outwardly respectable middle-class Puccio family: sons Alex (Peter Lanzani), Maguila (Gaston Cocchiarale) and Guillermo (Franco Masini), daughters Silvia (Gisella Motta) and Adriana (Antonia Bengoechea), mother Epifania (Lili Popovich) and terrifying chilly-eyed patriarch Arquimedes (Guillermo Francella, whose naturally blue eyes give Johnny Depp‘s distracting contact lenses in “Black Mass” a run for their money in the “demonic” stakes). Alex is a promising rugby star —the film is a mild critique of the culture of sporting hero-worship— about to be inducted into the real family business: his father is an ex-government official for whom old dictatorship-approved habits of kidnapping for ransom, like a lot of his victims, die hard. Arquimedes pursues this lucrative criminal way of life partly for his own enrichment, but also, it is implied, as a means to channel funds back into the junta’s coffers, since he and his cohorts all believe that Argentine democracy is but a blip and soon the good old days of dictatorship and oppression will be back again.
But the story gets grimmer still: it is revealed that the Puccio household’s basement has been converted into a cell in which to incarcerate pending victims. Despite the efforts to mask the noise, groans and screams that can be heard throughout the house, making Epifania’s later assertions that she and her daughters knew nothing of Arquimedes’ activities a little hard to swallow. As if to mitigate the potential dourness of the story, Trapero laces some jaunty counterpoint music onto the soundtrack: The Kinks‘ “Sunny Afternoon” is used twice; “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” and “Just A Gigolo” also crop up, with the latter especially effective during the scene of the final kidnapping that will ultimately be the family’ undoing. But there is a slight sense that this device, while effective, as well as the frequent cross-cutting between scenes in which the similarities are more circumstantial than thematically illuminating (for example, when the grunts of Alex having sex with his girlfriend are echoed in the groans of a kidnapping victim begging for his life), does not feel quite as organic as it could have been. Trapero is a straight-ahead, serious filmmaker (as previous titles like “White Elephant” and “Carancho” have proven) and there is little irony or inherent wit to his style. Which is not to say he shows no flair: on the contrary, the kidnapping scenes are thrillingly mounted, with a queasy you-are-there immediacy that makes us wholly complicit.
But there are other elements that don’t fully convince either. The Jockish Alex is clearly no rocket scientist, but even so, it’s a little hard to swallow that he might be unaware that his father is about to kill his friend Ricardo, whom Alex had helped lure, seeing as the thin cover story for the kidnapping (they make it seem as though Alex has been taken too) would be easily refuted when Ricardo returned home and discovered that Alex had in fact been attending rugby practise and feigning surprise at the news of his disappearance all along. And Alex, who is the closest thing to a morally sympathetic character here, is pretty easily corrupted; about to express his disinclination for the family business, he’s handed a huge wad of cash by his father, opens his own sporting goods store and appears to forget any moral qualms he may have have over aiding and abetting the kidnap and murder of a string of unfortunates. This means we don’t quite get the rich sense of him as an inwardly conflicted Michael Corleone-type, despite the parallels between this family and the Family in that touchstone Coppola classic.
Really, it’s Arquimedes who emerges as the film’s most indelible character, aided by Francella’s fabulously icy performance. Lacking even the warmth of a Don Vito, Arquimedes comes across not as a man who does everything for his family, but as a man who expects his family to do everything, even damn themselves, for him and his twisted, heartless, self-centered worldview. And they do so. While Trapero makes of this material a Hollywood-style crime story with shades of Scorsese and Coppola and an ending that goes full-on De Palma, he also spins it out into a wider analogy for how any behavior can be made to seem normal in a closed, autocratic environment. Whether it’s the well-off Puccio family operating under the patriarchal authority of Arquimedes, or Argentine society trying to come to terms with the institutional corruption and rule by terror of the prevailing military dictatorship, the stylishly grimy “El Clan” asks but never quite fully explores one overriding question that applies on both levels: can anyone be innocent of complicity in a crime when they heard and ignored the screams coming from the basement? [B]