When everything’s a game, it’s easier to forget the wrongdoing perpetrated during play. We see this in sports, but we also see it in war, where young men and women cope with stress by envisioning their targets as the bad guys in a first-person shooter. In Pablo Trapero’s bleak but occasionally cheeky family-crime drama The Clan, the game is played out in devastating ways.
At first glance, Arquímedes Puccio and his family seem normal, possibly even the victims. In an early scene, the timeline jumps years ahead, and Alejandro, the golden-child rugby-playing son, is thrown against the wall, his girlfriend Mónica screaming, in an apparent home invasion. But because this is Argentina in 1985, the scene triggers memories of the Dirty War, where thousands of dissidents to the military state simply “disappeared.” As the narrative backs up three years to a more joyful time, when the Democratic Raúl Alfonsín was elected to office, we quickly realize that the Puccios are not the victims — at least, not in that early violent scene.
Billed as a thriller, The Clan doesn’t quite thrill but instead instills a slow-building dread of the inevitable. Alejandro and his brothers and sisters sit down to dinner, complimenting their mother’s arroz con pollo. Arquímedes tenderly rubs out the knots in his wife’s aching back as she professes how special his hands are and how lucky she is. This is your loaded gun in the first act. Not an actual loaded gun — because in this movie, despite the scattering of murders, guns are not prominent — but a loaded statement. As the camera follows closely behind Arquímedes while he wanders through the house, calling his clean-cut family to dinner, a final door opens, revealing the bathroom, where a yelping, hooded man lays in the tub, chained in shackles.
While Alejandro knows of his father’s kidnapping business, and even plays small but crucial parts in the abductions, it is as if the other children in the house — two girls and a boy — cannot hear the whimpering of a strange man in the adjacent room. They simply carry on with their homework and chores. This blatant ignorance of wrongdoing is the crux of the story, and at one point, Alejandro, while calming his younger brother about a rugby match, hits an epiphanic note and advises that it’s just a game, better not to make it about life and death.
Unfortunately, Alejandro’s new game with his father is almost entirely about death. He never quite expresses his full disdain for his father’s kidnapping and murdering of his own friends and acquaintances, but he never fully accepts it either. The money and the benefits of Arquímedes’ acts get in the way, but that doesn’t stop all the boys in the family from dreaming of leaving the country and their father. The house is full of voices, literal screaming voices, and at one point, an old woman locked in the basement wails for weeks on end until the youngest girl breaks and must finally address the telltale heart beneath the floorboards. Of course, the girl is shushed, and the upbeat English-language soundtrack barrels through — featuring the likes of even David Lee Roth.
The filmmakers build suspense with artful sound collage, creating moments of moral confusion by overlapping scenes of everyday life and hostage terror with similar sounds: the screams of passionate sex, a man being beaten, a joyful crowd of spectators. When a murdered man’s head flops dull on a car horn that then blares endlessly, a song of wailing guitars nearly matches the pitch, both competing for the oxygen in the room. It is exactly when sound, story and picture work together in the same groove that this film’s potential is reached.
On the flip side, there are instances where one of these elements is lacking. Veteran Argentine actor Guillermo Francella and newcomer Peter Lanzani, as Arquímedes and Alejandro, respectively, deliver surprisingly restrained performances. Even though there is not much violence depicted in the film, the interactions always suggest its potential. But sometimes we are so in the characters' heads — often through artfully placed cameras that literally stay close to their eye lines — that it’s difficult to give their story perspective or understand how it fits into the larger story of Argentina’s Dirty War.
We’re supposed to understand that Arquímedes is a relic from the newly dead regime, a man who made people disappear, and that with his “job” eliminated, he must turn to kidnapping wealthy people for ransom, but the brutal specifics of his situation don’t quite translate immediately, to an American audience at least. Questions arise: We never see Arquímedes going to “work,” so what in God’s name do his neighbors think he does for a living? The story is based on the true accounts of the Puccio family, but it seems at least some creative license could have been taken to ground the audience in the daily life of that political atmosphere.
Even with the narrative and perspective missteps — every male character gets his own lens, but the female ones don’t? — what does work here works very well. Violence isn’t sanitized, it’s just commonplace. The Clan explores a side to the Dirty War we rarely see, that of the regular humans who got caught up in the evil, unable to escape the game, even after the power got cut.