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Guillermo Francella and Peter Lanzani star in The Clan, about a family quietly carrying out kidnappings and killings for ransom money.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Clan
Written by
Julian Loyola, Esteban Student, Pablo Trapero
Directed by
Pablo Trapero
Starring
Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovich
Genre
Biopic
Classification
18A
Country
Argentina, Spain
Language
Spanish
Year
2015

We're in a wealthy suburb of Buenos Aires on a warm, calm night. Over a dinner of roast chicken and talk of English homework, we meet the Puccios, an Argentinian family quietly carrying out kidnappings and killings for ransom money. Their victims are the desaparecidos – the disappeared – for which the corrupt government under the Peron dictatorship is guilty of tens of thousands more.

This is The Clan: an arresting political drama chronicling the true crimes of the Puccio family following the end of Argentina's Dirty War. Here, we watch the excruciating growing pains of both family and country as Argentina returns to democracy through its "Process of National Reorganization" in 1983.

The head of the family, Arquimedes (Guillermo Francella), is an intelligence officer who comes out of this Dirty War with exceptionally unclean hands but with a nonetheless clear conscience. That is, Arquimedes absolves himself of all manner of sin in the name of family. And that family – wife Epifania (Lili Popovich), oldest son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani) and daughters Silvia and Adriana (Giselle Motta and Antonia Bengoechea) – is also along for the aiding and abetting.

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Without claiming too many awards to its name, The Clan was still something of a critical darling on the 2015 film festival circuit. Director Pablo Trapero won the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice International Film Festival, and the film received honourable mention from the Platform jury at TIFF in September. The Clan was also flirting with an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, but, in the end, without success.

Even if your knowledge of Argentina's political history is wanting, The Clan is still worth seeing. For a more precise account of the horrors from the point of view of the victims and their families, there is Luis Puenzo's Oscar-winning The Official Story from 1985 (which is getting re-released to mark 40 years since the end of the war). But Trapero tries something different here: his camera crosses over onto the wrong side of history to see what, if anything, keeps a family such as the Puccios up at night.

On the one hand, it is uncomfortable to feel so close in proximity to the Puccios as they forcibly disappear their fellow Argentinians. On the other, by cozying up to the kidnappers in The Clan we get closer to the warped thinking that allowed them to tear apart other families while they sat comfortably around the dinner table with theirs.

Trapero's film is rife with moments of cognitive dissonance such as this. The sociopathic Arquimedes can be disarming, all twinkling blue eyes and the occasional soft touch for his wife or warm shoulder for his youngest daughter. In the same breath, he has the blood of innocents on his hands as he stands in a grimy phone booth demanding ransom. There is also the soundtrack to consider, which plays an upbeat pop song while a ski mask is thrust over a victim's beaten head.

The camera's pacing performs a similarly jarring contrast and manic flow: we bop around a crowded room of heads and brush against shoulders at a lively party only to stop dead in our tracks in front of the glowering Arquimedes.

In another weird and enthralling scene, the family's oldest son, Alejandro – trying to stave off a panic attack – inhales oxygen from a steel tank through a scuba mask in his sporting-goods store after hours. His hyperventilating and greedy oxygen intake finds a visual counterpoint later when a stunned abductee slowly, without any of Alejandro's haste, exhales a lopsided ring of cigarette smoke.

It is obvious enough that you would never want to run into Arquimedes in a dark alley, but what would you do if he was your father? This is one of many hypothetical questions asked by The Clan, and the uneasiness of a clear answer is what makes the film completely absorbing to watch.

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So trust the festival hype and know that The Clan, though it occupies itself with the motives of criminals rather than victims, is not lacking in moral complexity. Rather, Trapero reveals the ways in which truth can be much stranger, more tragic and confused, than fiction.

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