- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

“The Clan” is one of the most intriguing films I have seen in some time. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of a family of Argentine ransomers who nab rich people from the streets while maintaining the exterior of a middle-class normalcy, maintaining jobs, relationships and the veneer of neighborliness, while beneath their floorboards lies a dungeon of horrors. That it is based on actual happenings only ups the unease we experience beholding what occurs — as well as the seeming detachment the kidnappers and murderers exhibit to outsiders.

Guillermo Francella stars as the patriarch, Arquimedes Puccio, who rules the clan with an eerie dispassion, casually discussing ransoms and murders around the family hearth as if they were but natural — and immediately quashing any sense “The Clan” will be a mystery. Arquimedes makes laconic calls to panicked relatives demanding payment for the return of their loved ones. The godfather ups the game early, when he orders their victims be killed even after the ransoms have been paid.

It is a curiously brilliant oddity of the script to then drop the young man of the family, Alejandro (Peter Lanzani) into a romance subplot, and indeed one of the most harrowingly ingenious sequences cuts back and forth between rather energetic backseat lovemaking between “Alex,” as he is known, and his girlfriend Monica (Stefania Koessl) while Arquimedes orchestrates torturous machinations of his latest victims in the family basement — all of it set to rock ‘n’ roll.

For the lasciviousness of the material, it is played not for irony or laughs, but recall that earlier I called the film a black comedy. The twisted laughter comes courtesy of a rock soundtrack that evokes the early 1980s setting perhaps a little too well, placing kidnapping and murder in foreground while David Lee Roth and other contemporaries vilely pump up moviegoer adrenaline. It is as if the director, Pablo Trapero, is making the audience complicit in the evil actions of the Puccios simply by beholding, a la Hitchcock. That the year of the film’s setting is 1981 only adds to the satire given it was the year MTV went on the air: Mr. Trapero has made the world’s most macabre music video.

The film opens with — and is often punctuated by — speeches by Argentine bureaucrats saying that state-sanctioned disappearances are at last to come to an end. What this meant, in practicum, was that the business of kidnappings went private sector, with Arquimedes, himself a former intelligence worker, and his like turning tricks of his trade into private gain rather than for the benefit of the state. Mr. Trapero and his co-screenwriters, Julian Loyola and Esteban Student, effectively condemn that the vacuum left in the wake of autocracy and state-sponsored terror is often worse than its antecedents (see also: the Islamic State).

“The Clan” has been a festival darling this year, even winning the Silver Lion for directing at Venice. Mr. Trapero helms with an assured, deft hand, never playing the material for cheap laughter or self-knowing irony. Between cynical rock montages and genuinely suspenseful moments of unbearable tension, Mr. Trapero manages to take a dark, dark tale of the underside of human behavior and do the seemingly impossible: if not make the Puccios outright likable, at least to make them relatably human instead of cartoon monsters.

What he has made is in fact a reverse-police procedural, with the perpetrators not only known at the outset but abetted by a society that is too blind from corruption to even bother turning away.

Opens Friday in the District. In Spanish with English subtitles. Rated R for violence, intense kidnapping and torture scenes, plus one sex scene that somehow defies both physics and the roominess of a car’s backseat.

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