Venice fest: The Clan, a sordid tale from Argentina of 1980s

  • Gautaman Bhaskaran, Hindustan Times, Venice
  • Updated: Sep 09, 2015 12:15 IST
Argentine crime film The Clan, helmed by Pablo Trapero, is based on the Puccio family who were accused of kidnapping and killing people.

A powerfully evocative work from Argentina, The Clan, helmed by Pablo Trapero, talks about the sordid goings on in the 1980s when the country was passing through the notoriously fearful years of a military dictatorship.

Part of the ongoing Venice Film Festival's most prestigious Competition, The Clan, based on a true story, had a fantastic start in Argentina on August 13. It broke the box office record for the best opening weekend -- outselling the likes of Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation. The Clan sold more than 10 lakhs tickets in two weeks, beating the figures set by 2014's Oscar nominated anthology movie, Wild Tales.

Now vying for Venice's Golden Lion, The Clan unfolds as Argentina transits from a dictatorial regime to democracy. The dictatorship was a terribly dark era when 30,000 people were killed or abducted or not traceable.

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Arquimedes Puccio, the patriarch, is at the centre of the film, and he and wife Epifania seem like an ordinary couple living in a middle-class neighbourhood of Buenos Aires.

But beneath this seemingly calm and happy exterior lay a black secret. Arquimedes along with his son, Alejandro, kidnapped rich men and women, demanded huge ransoms and killed the victims once the deals were through. Alejandro, a champion rugby player, went unnoticed as he identified potential targets for his father. He was literally a decoy in his father's operations.

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In 1982, at the time of Argentina's disastrous attempt to capture the Falkland Islands from Britain, the Puccios abducted their first victim, Ricardo Manoukian, a 23-year-old teammate of Alejandro's. Over the next three years, they would kidnap three others and kill all but the last, a businesswoman -- who was held captive in the most unimaginably filthy conditions in a dingy basement room. The woman had powerful connections, and the Puccios were cornered. The curtain came down on their crime drama in August 1985.

A scene from The Clan by Pablo Trapero.

"My movie tells the story of this family from the inside and, through it, we discover its criminal life, this horrific kidnapping enterprise, and from there the historical context of the country," said Trapero at a press conference soon after The Clan was screened here. It depicts a father of "unspeakable coldness and cruelty, and this son who lived in submission despite the fact that he had everything he needed to escape," he said.

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Arquimedes was sentenced to life in prison and died at age 83. To his dying day, he denied that he had committed the crimes. Alejandro spent more than 20 years in prison, attempting suicide four times. He died in 2008, soon after his release.

Trapero's work is much more than the story of the Puccios. It plays more like a political parable closely related to Argentina's background. One can easily draw strong parallels between this family and the military junta, which ruled over the country from the late 1970s to the early 1980s that murdered and tortured just about anybody suspected of subversive tendencies. Arquimedes cajoles, threatens and bribes his son to get his support in the nefarious activities.

A scene from The Clan by Pablo Trapero.

The military generals did the same, and to emphasise this connection, Trapero shows real footage of the dictatorship, including General Leopoldo Galtieri saying on television that losing the Malvinas was not really a defeat! Indeed, the cellar where the Puccios confined their victims was not very different from the country's inhuman jails.

Trapero paints a horrific picture of the family and presents the innocent image it projected to the world outside its home. The Puccios were god-fearing, always beginning their meals with a prayer. Arquimedes' wife teaches at a school, and in the evenings, the patriarch is seen helping his young daughters with their homework. But behind all this lay an ominous operation that was shielded by corrupt police officers, who were not changed even after the junta fell.

(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival.)

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