Father doesn't always know best in 'The Clan' (R)

Watching The Clan, you have to keep reminding yourself that this absolutely insane story really happened. The unbelievable tale of the Puccio family, who lived in a wealthy suburb of Buenos Aires and became infamous for a series of astonishing crimes in the 1980s, has fascinated Argentina for decades but may not be all that well known in the U.S. This taut, polished thriller, which has been made with the energy and pop-culture savvy of a Hollywood production, should change that.

Director Pablo Trapero (White Elephant) opens the picture with a quick prologue that uses news footage to recount the 1983 appointment of the democratically elected president Raúl Alfonsín and his ensuing reprisals against crimes committed during the country’s “Dirty War,” during which government-sponsored kidnappings left a toll of more than 30,000 desaparecidos (the vanished).

As the film opens, Arquimedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella), a dead-eyed psychopath who worked as an intelligence operative for the previous regime, is continuing his nasty work of kidnapping wealthy people for ransom — and keeping them prisoner in the home he shares with his wife and five children. In an early scene, we watch Arquimedes walking through his house. He asks his middle son Alex (Peter Lanzani) to stop watching TV and checks in on his younger daughter to tell her that mom has dinner ready. Everything seems normal. Except Arquimedes then makes his way down to the basement, where a hostage is being kept inside a dingy bathroom, hooded and chained and crying for help.

The juxtaposition of a happy home hiding a dungeon of horrors is the primary focus of The Clan: How did Arquimedes and his family manage to carry on as if nothing was happening, even though there were bleeding captives underneath their floorboards? Trapero, who co-wrote the script with Esteban Student and Julian Loyola, turns Alex into the audience surrogate. He’s a handsome, popular young man who works at his father’s surf shop, plays rugby and has a new girlfriend. Oh, and occasionally Alex also helps his father carry out a kidnapping, even serving up one of his rich friends as a victim.

Except Alex isn’t aware — at first — that his father has no intentions of ever returning his hostages alive, even after receiving ransom. The Clan can be terrifying one moment and darkly comical the next: A long sequence depicting the kidnapping of a woman is scored to David Lee Roth’s Just a Gigolo, while another kidnapping attempt goes horribly wrong, Pulp Fiction style. Trapero brings a lush style to the film that helps to heighten the overall weirdness: If it wasn’t based on a true story, you’d write the movie off as preposterous. 

Francella’s performance is too one-note to give the monstrous papa any dimension — his cold eyes never register any emotion — and the other family members are relegated to the background (the movie cries out for a scene in which Arquimedes’ wife voices how she feels about his crimes). The strained, strange relationship between father and son ultimately becomes the emotional center of The Clan, culminating with an astonishing closing shot guaranteed to induce startled gasps. It’s a great, jarring moment that is the work of a filmmaker clearly in love with his craft — and a flavor for the darker side of human nature.

Cast: Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovich, Gaston Cocchiarale, Giselle Motta.

Director: Pablo Trapero.

Screenwriters: Pablo Trapero, Esteban Student, Julian Loyola.

Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, sexual situations, nudity, adult themes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Opens March 25 in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Tower, O Cinema Miami Beach, South Beach; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, Gateway. 

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