The most anticipated Argentine film of the year, ‘El Clan’, premiers in cinemas this week. In his first feature based on a true story, renowned filmmaker Pablo Trapero contextualises the horrific crimes of the Puccio family during Argentina’s return to democracy.
The real story behind Pablo Trapero’s latest film, ‘El Clan’, confirms Mark Twain’s theory that truth is stranger than fiction. For their neighbours and friends, the Puccios were just a typical San Isidro family during Argentina’s bumpy transition to democracy in the early 80s. There was the domineering father, Arquímedes; the school teacher and mother, Epifanía; and five children, including Alejandro, a popular rugby player at the Club Atlético San Isidro (CASI) who even played a few matches for the Pumas, Argentina’s national team. At a storefront connected to the Puccio home, the family ran first a takeout place and later, an outdoor sports store that catered to the lifestyle of rich suburban kids.
Yet behind the cozy façade, a very different family business was underway: the kidnapping of rich local residents whom the Puccio family and their cronies knew to varying degrees. After collecting the ransom, the Puccios were thus obliged to kill all of the victims, since releasing them would have been tantamount to turning themselves in to the authorities.
When the clan’s crimes finally came to light in 1985, their final victim, Nélida Bollini, was still chained up in the basement, as her captors had been keeping her in case they needed proof of life to receive the ransom. As police swarmed around the house that fateful night, the neighbours murmured that the Puccios must have been robbed: no one ever would have suspected what was actually occurring.
Trapero’s version of the events gets off to a jumpy and somewhat befuddling start. Archive images of Raúl Alfonsín and Nunca Más are followed by the police raid on the home; the film then goes back to the beginning, that is, the lead-up to the kidnapping of Ricardo Manoukian, the first Puccio victim.
Once the actual story is underway, the film gains narrative strength, shifting seamlessly between the horror of the different rooms in the Puccio household reserved for the “guests”—first an upstairs bathroom, later a basement dungeon—and the everyday lives of an average middle class family: homework, quibbling, family dinners. When one of the kidnappings, that of local businessman Emilio Naum, goes south, Naum’s unplanned murder is spliced with shots of Alejandro going at it in a car with his girlfriend. This is the dizzying flurry of images of the sort that has made Trapero—the director of movies that portray the underside of Buenos Aires like ‘El Bonaerense’, ‘Carancho’, and ‘Elefante Blanco’—one of Argentina’s most exciting filmmakers.
Yet it is not only in the peaks of tension surrounding each of the kidnappings that ‘El Clan’ succeeds. The film boasts an exquisite choice of songs by the Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and rock nacional bands like Virus and Serú Girán; as David Lee Roth croons “I’m just a gigolo”, Bollini is swept into a van by one of the clan members and driven off. Such songs—not to mention the brilliant sound editing by Vicente D’Elía—hint at both the delirious happiness that accompanied the return to democracy as well as its inability to muffle the horrors of the past.
The film’s actors—all of whom look eerily like their real-life counterparts—also deserve praise for bringing such implausible characters to life. Guillermo Francella, a comic actor who proved his capacity for dramatic work in the Oscar winning ‘El secreto de sus ojos’, is the patriarch Arquímedes, controlling his sons with nothing more than a bone-chilling gaze. For his part, former teenage TV star Peter Lanzani gives a tortured and sensitive portrayal of Alejandro, perpetually torn between his desire to live a normal life and the obligation to fulfil his father’s mandate.
Occasionally, Trapero’s abundant energy works against him. A story this dense would have benefited from a more linear structure as opposed to Trapero’s jumping all over the timeline, and the scenes with less dramatic tension seem to drag on a bit. ‘El Clan’ is laudable, though, for what lies on the fringes of the Puccio story: the hiding of Argentina’s terrors in plain sight and people’s choice to simply hurry past any sign of horror. “What happened with the Puccio—and with Argentina—was possible because of people’s indifference,” said Trapero in a recent interview with La Nación. Adriana, the youngest of the Puccios, is unable to ask her father to tell her who is moaning in the basement and instead surprises him with a kiss on the cheek. And the clan’s kidnapping victims—hooded, chained, and filthy, forced to write letters to their families dictated by Arquímedes—cannot help but evoke the disappeared.
The turbid climate during and post-dictatorship is perhaps the film’s greatest merit, one the archive images contribute to recreating. Ultimately, when the children of the last victim opt to ignore Arquímedes’s order to simply deliver the ransom and instead get the police involved, the demise of the Puccio can be read as the triumph of democracy in Argentina and the return of the state.