In the chilling, at times macabre film El Clan, the events leading up to the arrest of the Puccio family, who committed a series of murders and kidnappings in post-dictatorship Argentina in the 1980s, are recounted with an electrifying genre vibe. For his skill and vision, Pablo Trapero won the Best Director prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
What motivated you to make a film about the Puccio family?
Various things. First of all, the story of an unusual family, especially the relationship between a father and his son. Also, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about a period in Argentinean history that has rarely been dealt with in cinema. There are hardly any references to this transition from dictatorship to democracy which was so painful for the country. And through this family, namely the bond between Arquímedes and Alejandro Puccio, an opportunity presents itself to touch on more universal issues.
Was it difficult to get inside the head of someone as morally corrupt as Arquímedes?
That was one of the greatest challenges of the film: how to make the audience connect with someone so cold and brutal; how to make him accessible to the spectator. The fact that Arquímedes was a loving, protective father who took care of his family provided part of the solution. We decided to tell the story of an ordinary family. That’s the most surprising find from our research. They were not a family of freaks, a la True Detective. They were a respected, middle-class family. Arquímedes was a well-known accountant. The mother was a much-loved school teacher. Alejandro was an admirable and gifted rugby player. They were all well-adjusted and respected people and very much socially integrated. That was what made the news so shocking in the end, and why many people refused to believe it for a long time. There were even rallies in support of the family. Alejandro’s friends would visit him in jail. That is, until the findings from the case were made public.
How did it occur to you to give the role of Arquímedes to such a famous comedic performer as Guillermo Francella?
I had been meaning to work with Francella for a long time. When I was in the final stage of my research and starting to write the script for the film, it struck me that he could do it. I wanted to adjust the character to what I hoped Francella could achieve. So I called him and we went for coffee, and I asked him whether he would like to do it. Eventually it came down to whether he was brave enough to take on a character that people would most probably hate. I wanted viewers to respond to the character with a mixture of anguish and fascination, with fear and curiosity. That was one of the issues that we tackled from early on, and thankfully Francella was completely on board with it. Also, he had grown up in the same neighbourhood where the crimes had taken place. He knew the club, he knew where the Puccio family lived, he even knew people that were linked to the victims’ families. So for him there was something in this project that had affected him personally.
The character has very distinct mannerisms – did you let Francella decide on those himself?
No. It was something that was very much discussed. I’ll give you an example. One of the things we decided was that Francella shouldn’t blink, which is something physically very uncomfortable for anyone. We worked on scenes that were at least five minutes long, and I remember him coming up to me and saying he couldn’t be like that for five straight minutes. It was all very much thought out, but of course he would also make his own suggestions. Another aspect that was very controlled was the manner and tone of his speech. The words he would use or the peculiar way he had of talking on the phone.
What would you say is the function of music in this film?
For one, it helps recreate the time period. There are songs that play throughout, for example: “Encuentro Con El Diablo”, a song from 1982 that was popular at the time. Other examples are “Wadu Wadu”, which is a song by Virus from 1983, and “Just a Gigolo” from 1985. But then you also have songs that were not from the period and yet were typically found on the radio at the time. Songs by Creedence or the Kinks or Ella Fitzgerald. What is interesting about these songs is that for some time during the dictatorship and especially during the Falkland War, it was prohibited to broadcast music in English. That is why, after the dictatorship, there was a sudden influx of foreign music on the radio. We wanted the music to reflect the times and to make it seem like this would be something the family would be listening to as they were kidnapping and torturing their victims. The music playing on the radio would have been light, fun and poppy, which also created this interesting contrast between image and sound.
Which genre does this film belong to?
You could say it’s a cross between melodrama and thriller, but if you pay attention there are also some references to the horror genre. One example is the use of the telephone or also the voices heard throughout the house, which one would associate with the voices of the victims being tortured or those who have already passed away. There is a mixture of genres because that helps build an atmosphere. There are hints of surreal melodramas like Bunuel's El Ángel Exterminador, films in which reality is completely subverted. But there are also things taken from straight-up crime films. Let’s call it a mix of Bunuel, Scorsese and Fellini.
How does this film fit in your filmography, and within the “Nuevo Cine Argentio” movement that you're a part of?
People started talking about the Nuevo Cine Argentino in the 1990s, but it wasn't something that we came up with. It’s not like we all came together and said: “Let’s make Nuevo Cine Argentino happen!” In fact, what’s curious about the movement is its diversity. That is what I think is its principal characteristic: different methods of production, different aesthetics, different pursuits. Having said that, I made this film with the same strength, intention and enthusiasm as I made my first film. I’m older, the years have gone by, I have more experience, but you always need the spirit of curiosity and the sense of pursuit in order to keep on making films.
El Clan opens in Berlin cinemas on March 3. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.