El Clan is a pungent real-life story which has more than a hint of Goodfellas or Animal Kingdom, whilst also being steeped in the political corruption of the Argentinean dictatorship. Over the course of his last few films, it has seemed as though Trapero has been aspiring to a semi-Hollywood aesthetic, seeking to make big-budget thrillers set in his country, discarding his earlier Argentine new-wave aesthetic, in a way that someone like Lucretia Martel has not. In the process he has sacrificed subtlety for effect and his most recent films have tended towards a slightly bombastic, melodramatic tone. In El Clan, it feels like he’s starting to get the Latino-Hollywood blend right, pulling off the political thriller with some verve.
The film is set around the end of the Argentine dictatorship in the early 80s. Arquimedes, a retired naval officer, now owns a grocery store, but runs a tidy kidnapping business on the side. This is done with the tacit knowledge of the military authorities who have taken their skills in disappearing supposed revolutionaries and applied them to more commercial ends, targeting the rich for their money. Arquimedes runs this business from home, not only organising his operations there, but also keeping his victims chained up and blindfolded in the basement, whilst his teenage kids do their homework upstairs. His oldest son, Alejandro, is roped into the action. Alejandro has the perfect cover as a promising rugby player: no one is ever going to suspect he’s involved in kidnapping and ultimately murdering the acquaintances he’s made through his posh pursuit.
Trapero handles the storytelling with vigour. Early on, there’s a distinctive, Scorsese-esque use of The Kinks ‘Sunny Afternoon’, flagging up the director’s intentions to make a film which has a more global perspective. The filmmaker understands that the story depends on capturing the relationships within the family. Guillermo Francella’s inscrutable anti-hero, Arquimedes, is a chilling baddie, who nevertheless takes time to help his daughter with her homework and give his wife a massage. It’s the banality of evil which is captured in his performance, something that emerges from the military-political culture he’s a product of, one which has lost all touch with the notion of a moral order. In this world, to kidnap and to murder is fine; and if the family question this, then they too are flirting with the enemy. His sons, the next generation which is capable of recognising guilt, suffer his tyranny; their guilt in the end absorbs them in a way it never could their father. By tying his mafia-style story into its political context, Trapero succeeds in adding something into the mix Hollywood struggles to achieve: a recognition that a society’s moral codes are tied to its structures of governance. This helps to make El Clan a more profoundly affecting movie, above and beyond its bid to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Scorsese. There are still moments, such as the drawn-out denouement, which feel as though they might have benefitted from a less melodramatic approach of an earlier film like Born and Bred, but its good to see Trapero on form, and continuing to grow as a director.