"The Clan," Argentina's official submission for the 2015 foreign-language film Oscar, is an unsettling, highly absorbing crime drama from writer-director Pablo Trapero ("Carancho"). Think "The Sopranos" by way of Martin Scorsese, but set around Buenos Aires in the early 1980s. Oh, and it's a true story.
This shocking tale unfolds against a canvas of political transformation, during a time when Argentina's dictatorship era gave way to more democratic governance. Reacting to a system in flux, Arquímedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella), a steely, middle-class family man, shifts from making political dissenters "vanish" to kidnapping wealthy neighbors and holding them for ransom.
That authorities mostly "looked the other way" is startling enough. But the fact that Puccio involved his beloved family in his heinous crimes, most especially his conflicted, rugby-star son, Alejandro (Peter Lanzani), makes this case — and the film — extra disturbing.
As seen here, Puccio matriarch Epifanía (Lili Popovich), a school teacher of all things, dutifully cooks arroz con pollo for the victims being held captive in the family basement. Meanwhile, younger children Guillermo (Franco Masini), Silvia (Giselle Motta) and Adriana (Antonia Bengoechea) watch TV, do homework and wonder what fresh hell is taking place just feet away from them. Another sibling, Maguila (Gastón Cocchiarale), is exiled in New Zealand, but eventually rejoins the family horror show.
Trapero stages the kidnapping set pieces with stirring dispatch, amping up the action with a bold, ironic, propulsive use of such pop tunes as the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" and David Lee Roth's "Just a Gigolo." The filmmaker's visual sense is equally vital. To wit, his cross-cutting between an urgent sexual encounter and the cries of one of Puccio's abductees results in a bravura bit of editing.
Despite the mayhem and Puccio's inevitable downward spiral, the heart of the film remains the strained dynamic between Arquímedes and Alejandro: a monstrous father demanding loyalty and obedience at all costs from the prized son who seemingly just wants to live a "normal" life. Francella and Lanzani are excellent, not only in their charged moments together, but throughout this nervy and provocative picture.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and a scene of sexuality/nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood.