The Clan review

Argentine period thriller The Clan features one of the scariest villains of the year so far. Here’s Ryan’s review...

The poet Philip Larkin had a thing to or two to say about the destructive power of parents, but even he probably wouldn’t have imagined a father as coldly messed up as The Clan’s Arquimedes Puccio.

A placid-seeming, ordinary family man who runs his own delicatessen in 80s Argentina, Arquimedes (Guillermo Francella) also has a far darker second job – that of a kidnapper who keeps wealthy victims in his basement and demands huge ransoms from their loved ones.

More horrifying still, Arquimedes’ family – a wife, two daughters, three sons – are either passively aware of the kidnappings or actively involved in assisting them. In one startling early scene, we see how rugby-playing middle brother Alejandro (Peter Lanzani) calmly leads a new acquaintance into his father’s clutches; the victim’s hooded, stuffed into the boot of a car and whisked off to the Puccio family lair.

Aside from the muffled screams of the abuctees sometimes issuing from beneath their feet, life in the Puccio household is perfectly laid-back and normal. Director Paulo Trapero injects a sly hint of black comedy into this mind-boggling true story, where Arquimedes emotionally manipulates his progeny into following his every order; aside from one incendiary moment, we never see the father lose his temper, yet we’re constantly aware of the fury flickering behind his pale blue eyes.

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Cutting back and forth in time to an eclectic jukebox soundtrack which takes in The Kinks and Dave Lee Roth, The Clan shows how the Puccio family manages to compartmentalise Arquimedes’ ruthless exploits. Alejandro is sometimes racked with guilt over his part in the crimes, but is also dazzled by the sight of a wedge of ransom cash shoved under his nose by his father, and soon makes a comfortable living from a sports shop – again bought and paid for by the bank of dad.

If Arquimedes tries to justify his actions at all, he just shrugs and suggests that the wealthy have it coming – they were the ones who were bleeding the country dry, he says. Arquimedes’ kidnapping exploits began under the old military regime, where he was hired to make certain enemies of the dictatorship conveniently “disappear”. When democracy was restored in 1983, Arquimedes just carried on kidnapping – this time to line his own pockets.

Stylishly shot and initially measured in its pace – David Fincher’s immaculately directed Zodiac springs to mind – The Clan soon becomes bizarrely compulsive viewing once the depths of Arquimedes’ crimes rises to the surface. Trapero doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the suffering the kidnap victims faced, nor does he attempt to glamourise the people who kidnapped them.

If there’s a problem with The Clan, it’s that Alejandro is a somewhat bland character, flatly played for the most part by Lanzani and utterly upstaged by Guillermo Francella’s fearsome patriarch. He’s the movie’s equivalent of Richard III – a loathsome, scheming character who you can’t help but watch with grim fascination.

This is one of those films where, if you hadn’t been informed that it’s based on true events, you’d dismiss some of it as far-fetched. Trapero gently escalates the movie to a startling, superbly-designed conclusion. The Clan is an engrossing, handsomely-mounted period thriller that hums with dramatic tension; Francella’s performance is a masterclass in economy, and as if you hadn’t guessed, Arquimedes is in with an early shout as the scariest film villain of the year.

The Clan played at the Glasgow Film Festival.

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4 out of 5