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Film Review

The Clan

Argentina and Chile were not alone among South American countries experiencing Dirty Wars, but theirs were among the most brutal. In Argentina, a coup in 1976 unleashed a reign of terror that saw the systematic persecution of Communists, labor unionists, teachers, students and anyone suspected of leftist tendencies. Arrested, often tortured, many were killed in over 300 torture centers established around the country, usually on military bases. Some were dropped alive into the ocean on the now infamous death flights. Rarely were families notified of their fate of those we now know by their Argentine moniker, "los desparacidos," the disappeared.

In all, about 13,000 Argentines disappeared; many of their bodies have never been found. The Falklands War, started by the Argentine military to gain public support, ended in disaster and ultimately led to elections in 1983. Even then, the military still refused to cooperate with families seeking information on their vanished loved ones. Today, few among the military have been prosecuted for their crimes although thousands were involved in some fashion. While they may not have actually pulled a trigger, they were nevertheless complicit. Recently uncovered documents from this period show that the United States was fully aware of the plans for a military coup and did nothing. Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, told the Argentine ambassador that he (Kissinger) "understood your problem" and urged them to act quickly. Last month, President Obama apologized to the Argentine people for America's tacit support of the coup.

In The Clan, Pablo Trapero, an Argentine producer and director (Carancho), tells a dark and horrifying tale, base on facts that surfaced from a police rescue a few years after the end of the Dirty War. The bare bones of the story, which broke during the director's childhood, are as follows: In 1985, the course of rescuing a kidnap victim from the basement of a house in Buenos Aires, the police discover that Arquimedes Puccio, a genial father of a family of five, was kidnapping people from wealthy families for substantial ransoms. More shocking, even to Argentines who thought they had seen everything during the Dirty War, the father involved his entire family in the business. His oldest son, Alejandro, a well regarded and popular rugby player at his upper-class school, had acted as a lure. The mother prepared food for the victims, another son assisted with the actual kidnapping. Puccio's two daughters clearly knew what was going on, but did nothing. Puccio was well connected with senior military figures and had been involved in disappearances for the military under the coup. With the country's return to democracy, he saw an opportunity to make money with the skill that he'd perfected during that time, and the Puccios lived a comfortable upper-middle-class life from the ransoms.

Fascinated by this story for decades, it took Trapero years raise the money for the film. Donors were reluctant to risk offending former military with this deeply disturbing story. In the screenplay that he co-wrote, Trapero hews closely to the facts of the case.

The father, Arquimedes, is played by a well known Argentine comedian, gives us a convincing, frightening portrait of an angel of death come to earth. Besides his own sons, he employs several thugs to help him in the kidnappings. Arquimedes rarely raises his voice yet has absolute control of his family. Thus we watch the soft-spoken psychopath with a growing sense of horror as the story unfolds. Son Alejandro is conflicted but the money and his father's control seem to hold him as captive as their victims.

Not for a moment in this powerful film does Trapero relinquish control, often alternating between scenes of normal life and the victim's ordeal. Sometimes scenes are date stamped to emphasize the truth of the story. The film is frightening, filled with enormous tension, even dread. Trapero uses Argentine pop music from the 1980's, adding much to the emotional punch. Editing and pacing are also excellent. At the end a scrolling coda tells us what became of the characters. Be sure to stay for this. The Clan is not only a well-told thriller, but a riveting commentary on Argentine society and the impact of the dictatorship. As Trapero shows, the military dictatorship cast a long shadow over Argentine life even after democracy returned. The Clan will be Argentina's submission to the 2017 Oscars. It appears to be playing only at the Embarcadero. Screening time 110 minutes.

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