The spirit of Martin Scorsese hovers constantly, if not always benevolently, over “The Clan,” Pablo Trapero’s unsettling dramatization of a real-life family mired in criminality and corruption in 1980s Argentina.
As portrayed by Guillermo Francella, family patriarch Arquímedes Puccio resembles Al Pacino during his lion-in-winter phase: Gray-haired and avuncularly stooped, Puccio makes a daily ritual of sweeping the street corner outside his home, where he presides over a thriving family. He’s as respected by his neighbors as by the government and law enforcement officials, with whom he occasionally raises a glass. Presumably, it’s with their tacit cooperation that he’s able to attend to his moonlight occupation: abducting wealthy Argentines for ransom, a sideline that has resulted in a comfortable life for his wife, two daughters and three sons.
Although one of the boys has already left home, Puccio’s eldest, Alejandro (Peter Lanzani), has stayed behind to become a star rugby player and, later, the manager of the family’s sporting-goods shop. “The Clan,” which won an award at the Venice Film Festival last year and has been a huge success in Argentina, positions Alejandro as the indeterminate moral center within a story that strikes an increasingly bizarre balance between lyrical scenes of cozy domesticity and moments of sordid, slashing cruelty. Obviously influenced by “The Godfather” and its successors, Trapero doesn’t delve into detail regarding Arquímedes’s role in Argentina’s “Dirty War” and its disappearances. He’s more interested in issues of filial loyalty and betrayal that come into sharp relief during the dawn of democracy, when ruthlessness once deployed on behalf of a brutal dictatorship has become a violent, greedy, increasingly depraved way of life for the entire Puccio family.
Francis Ford Coppola and his oeuvre notwithstanding, it’s Scorsese who’s most obviously invoked in “The Clan,” with every startling, visceral edit and music cue. (The soundtrack includes choice cuts from the Kinks and Creedence Clearwater Revival, providing disorientingly bouncy counterpoints to the carnage depicted on screen.) At times, the references are uncomfortably on the nose, such as a sequence in which the filmmaker intercuts scenes of Alejandro making love to his girlfriend (Stefanía Koessl) with the moans of one of the family’s victims. Although Trapero can’t be accused of lionizing his subjects, the exuberance of his portraiture suggests a discomfiting level of fascination, even if it falls short of outright approval.
On one level, “The Clan” is an accomplished but not terribly original genre exercise — another story about amorality run amok, given an extra jolt from its real-life roots and heightened political context. What sets the film apart are the performances, especially Francella’s dead-eyed portrayal of a morally bankrupt middle manager and Lanzani’s soulful depiction of bewildered passivity, which eventually reaches an astonishing breaking point. Stylish, atmospheric and dispiriting, “The Clan” gives cynical new twist to an old saw: The family that preys together stays together — but usually, not for long.
R. At AFI Silver and Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence, obscenity, nudity and sex. In Spanish with subtitles. 108 minutes.