Pablo Trapero is one of the most successful filmmakers working in Argentina today. To underline that status, his latest film to get a UK release was co-produced by the Almodóvars’ company El Deseo. It won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2015 and had the biggest ever opening box office take for any film in Argentina, quickly achieving 2 million admissions. What lies behind its success? This a ‘true crime film’ telling the unlikely story of the Puccio family living in an affluent district of Buenos Aires in the early 1980s. Behind the façade of comfortable middle-class life they operated a kidnapping business led by the father Arquímedes (Guillermo Francella) who had been an ‘intelligence’ operative – basically a tool of the military dictatorship – while masquerading as a civil servant before defeat in the Malvinas War helped to cause the downfall of General Galtieri in 1982. Still with contacts in the military, Arquímedes decides to switch from kidnapping and ‘disappearing’ dissidents to kidnapping rich business people and demanding large ransoms. It seems that young Argentinians are only dimly aware of the recent history of their country and the revelations of this story have created a great deal of interest.
(Warning: There are what some might consider SPOILERS in what follows.)
In terms of Latin American Cinema this is perhaps the most potent contemporary genre – films about the repercussions of the fascism of the 1980s in Argentina and at different times in many other Latin American countries. In some ways El Clan resembles the big popular hit The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) which won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for Argentina. But El Clan is in many ways a ‘harder’, less romantic film, probably because of the true life story. The hardness of the film is derived from the family’s involvement and in particular with the relationship between Arquímedes and his son Alejandro (known to his friends as Alex and played by Peter Lanzani). Alex is a successful rugby player. He plays for Casi, one of the powerful Buenos Aires clubs and was the ‘golden boy’ and later captain of the club team. He also played for the ‘Pumas’ – the national team which was beginning to build an international reputation in the 1970s and 1980s. When his father decides to kidnap the sons of rich men, he drags Alex into the business because several such boys are rugby players at Alex’s club and Alex is useful in identifying potential targets. Later, Arquímedes uses the money from one ‘job’ to transform the small family shop into a swish sporting goods store to be run by Alex. In one of the best scenes we see Alex testing a new sub-aqua set, holding the mouthpiece to his face and breathing in oxygen. On reflection this seems like a metaphor for the terror that Alex feels because of his father’s actions and his own involvement. He compulsively sucks in oxygen, as if he is gasping for air because he is so frightened. The contrast between the domesticity of the Puccio family’s daily routines and the brutality and squalor of the treatment of the kidnap victims is shocking.
All of the family bar the youngest, Adriana who is still in middle school, are aware of what is going on. Alex’s mother and his sister Sylvia (both teachers) play minor roles. The youngest son, Guillermo decides to abandon the family before he is dragged into the business when he goes abroad and the second son Maguila is brought back from abroad to aid his father. It is a chilling performance by Guillermo Francella as Arquímedes and reminds us of the conviction of the fascists in Argentina that they had a right to do these terrible things. Arquímedes is always calm, even when he is prepared to kill the abductees because they might cause problems if released. At the end of the film we learn what happened to the real Puccio family – and Arquímedes does more or less what we, by then, expect of him.
This is a well-made thriller which has audiences on the edge of their seats. Much has been made of the music in the film and the way it creates an ironic context for the terrible deeds on screen. I’ve seen reviewers refer to ‘contemporary pop songs’ – which is nonsense unless British/American music takes decades to reach Argentina. The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald (1944), the Kinks (1966) and Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969) provide excellent tracks that fit the film narrative, but they are not about the period. I don’t know the other songs – which might be 1980s. It has also been suggested that this is Trapero’s most accessible film. I’m not sure if this is necessarily the case. My memory of Carancho (2010) is of a similar mix of crime genre film and social commentary. Trapero’s approach is to start towards the end of the story (i.e. the arrest of the family) and show snatches of action and then flashback to different periods to discover what happened over three years. Each flashback has a useful title giving the year and some contextual events. Even so, this makes the film narrative more complex and more difficult to follow. If you want to watch the film (and I certainly recommend it) I suggest that you read a timeline of major events in Argentina 1982-85 before you watch it. I’m not sure what Trapero gains from this approach – perhaps it just seems fashionable and that is the basis of its accessibility? You can download the Production Notes for the film from the Curzon website, but these focus mainly on the contemporary coverage of the arrest etc. rather than the aesthetics of the film. It’s worth noting though that Trapero’s cinematographer Julián Apezteguia uses a tracking camera to take us through the government buildings and bureaucracies of Buenos Aires and a distinctive film noir style for the criminal acts themselves and especially the way Arquímedes moves silently, calmly through the night. There is something really creepy about Arquímedes sweeping the pavement in front of the family shop early in the morning with water from a hose being used to clean the walk-way when only yards away in a basement room a kidnap victim suffers. The sound too is very well handled with attention given to the muffled screams of the victims mixed with other more every day sounds.
The Clan in cinemas
The Clan opened in the UK on September 16 and the BFI box office for the first weekend shows that it only appeared in 14 cinemas – but achieved a site average of over £3,000, giving it No 29 in the chart and beating all but two of the other films on release. The small number of cinemas is surprising, especially because this is a film from the producers of the previous Argentinian blockbuster Wild Tales which in 2015 became the highest earning ‘non-Bollywood’ foreign language film in the UK. Wild Tales opened on 50 screens for No 9 in the chart and a site average over £3,600. So why the change of policy from the same distributor, Curzon-Artificial Eye? The difference is that this time Curzon made the film available on VOD at the same time as the cinema release. Unfortunately, they do not release stats for VOD sales on a regular basis, so there is so far no chance to compare the releases. What this means though is that there are fewer opportunities to see the film in cinemas. I saw the film on its second week run at HOME in Manchester where it showed in one of the smaller cinemas. It was so popular that the lunchtime screening sold out and I found myself in the middle of the front row with a CinemaScope image a few feet away. This was genuinely ‘immersive’ – so much so that I couldn’t see the whole screen easily and had to switch my gaze from one side of the screen to the other while still managing to read the subtitles. I’m not complaining and I enjoyed the film, but I’m not happy about Curzon’s policy. I shouldn’t have to travel 40 miles to see a film that could be showing closer to home. Either Curzon are reluctant to accept Picturehouses booking the film or the latter are even less interested in the foreign language market than I thought.