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A den of spiders is a cosy and comforting place, if you’re a spider. You hang out with your own. You spin family tales and collective memories. You entrap and destroy others, but for the common domestic good.
Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero’s The Clan is nasty but spellbinding. It’s a dramatic thriller based on true events. The spiders were human and called the Puccios. They kidnapped victims for ransom money, killing most of them, between 1982 and 1985. Papa Puccio, played with a pale-eyed, basilisk grace by Guillermo Francella, was the brains. His rugby-playing son Alex (Peter Lanzani) lent his love and loyalty, and even a rugby-playing friend (first victim) to the family business. Mum and the siblings fell in. It was a deep hole, or a deep hell, but again: if you all fall together . . .
This velvety, headlong nightmare is like The Godfather gone South American. Trapero has form as a social psychodramatist. He does cops, prisons and career criminals. He does societies on the verge of a nervous breakdown. To non-Argentinians even his titles, translated or untranslatable (El Bonaerense, Lion’s Den, Carancho, White Elephant), sound like howls from some mysterious semi-human zoo.
The film moves between time zones, with complex craft, as if Trapero wants to stagger the viewer’s informational feeding times. How much story or how little to serve at each moment? The junta era was a dark age from which some Argentinians were reluctant to emerge: a love-hate lagoon in time. The Puccios liked those privileged years of collaboration. The film keeps diving back into them for little feedings of memory.
Old Puccio carried the family into the rackety age of democratic freedom — freedom is always rackety to the fascistic mind — while young Puccio, a locker-room lackwit with a School of Rock mind (he even looks like Jack Black), stars in the film’s scariest scene. He and his girl’s noisy lovemaking in a car is cross-cut with the screams of a tortured hostage, all overlaid with a rock song’s indifferent, amplifying yowls. Music — music of the times — is used throughout with deadly irony and affect.
The tragedy for evildoers is that bad things come to an end, in justice and arrest. Before that The Clan is a diabolical movie ride, at once compelling and repelling. We can’t believe, yet we must, that the Puccio family ate its meals in full earshot of their prisoners’ moans or screams; that young Alex advanced his sports career like a top jock without a moral itch; and that Pa Puccio had an integrity all the more awesome — even incandescent — for being an integrity of evil.