I’m sure if I thought about it for a little while I could come up with plenty of examples of movies which used a non-original pop song, in its entirety, as a piece of its soundtrack. It’s not terribly common because most directors would rather edit to their own rhythms and not that of an external song. The song, therefore, is usually abridged in some manner. But there must be lots of examples where the whole thing is there.
However, I am virtually certain I have never seen a movie which plays the same song, in its entirety, twice. That is, until I saw The Clan.
Now the fact that song in question, “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks, is one of my favourites does not colour my opinion of Pablo Trapero’s movie. I just think it means that we share a taste in music. The movie, unfortunately, despite elements of near brilliance, is mostly a mess.
This has done nothing to dampen the raves it has gotten from most critics who seem to prefer over-directed style over simple story-telling. But I couldn’t help but think there was a much better movie to be made from some pretty dazzling source material.
The Clan tells the rather remarkable real-life story of Arquimedes Puccio, a petty kidnapper, extortionist, and murderer who operated in the final days and immediate aftermath of Argentina’s destructive “Dirty War.” It was a devastating time for the country, difficult to distinguish criminals from government officials. Many innocent civilians were kidnapped and worse. It was in this environment that Puccio operated his little family business.
The Clan dutifully traces the crimes that Puccio oversaw, including three murders, but its main focus is on the relationship between Arquimedes and his middle son Alejandro. Alejandro was a rugby star of national acclaim, but his main job appears to have been assisting his father and several associated henchmen in carrying out kidnappings. The movie begins on August 23, 1985, when Alejandro and his fiancée were detained during a police raid on the family home. We then travel back in time to see how Alejandro came to this point.
That is the first of several problems with Trapero’s vision. This is a story full of drama, action, and moral pitfall. It could have been told in chronological order and remained riveting. Jumping around in time as Trapero does only serves to make a rather complicated set of circumstances even more confusing. It is difficult, especially if you are not well-versed in this terrible period in Argentine history, to keep the timeline and the prevailing cultural and political realities straight.
The other result of this rather choppy approach to the material is that many characters barely register. There is only one character outside of Arquimedes and Alejandro who has a strong moment. This is Arquimedes’ youngest son Guillermo, who may be the only likeable character in the entire movie. The others, whether they are victims or crooks, are just kind of shadows that move across the screen.
Even Arquimedes, who towers over the picture, has some holes that make him hard to interpret. He flashes the badge of a government inspector at one point, but it is impossible to know whether this is genuine or not. We really have no clue who he is in the greater scheme of things. There is a mysterious boss character, referred to only as the “Commodore” but he remains equally ambiguous.
In a sense, this is also The Clan’s greatest strength – its ability to capture and make visceral the chaotic nature of Buenos Aires in the early ‘80s. But a little more grounding in who these people are would have been very helpful.
The Clan, with its focus on a domineering criminal father who involves his somewhat reluctant son in the family business, has echoes of The Godfather. There is even a scene in which Alejandro’s fiancée asks for reassurance that he had no knowledge of the crimes for which they have been arrested. When he reassuringly lies to her, you can almost hear Michael Corleone speaking to Kay. But The Clan never builds up the strong family dynamic of The Godfather. It never bothers to create interesting secondary characters. It barely scratches the surface of moral ambiguity that Coppola so masterfully navigates. And in the end, it doesn’t turn out to be a fair fight. Arquimedes is a dictator and Alejandro, for all his teen idol looks and athletic prowess, is a coward who generally chooses the path of least resistance. That fact turns the rather shocking real-life climax into somewhat of a conundrum. It’s hard to imagine the Alejandro we have witnessed in the movie opting for the course of action he ultimately chooses.
I suppose Trapero should be credited for not glamorising these thugs. But the result is that we have no one to invest in – no one to care about. Guillermo Francella, who plays Arquimedes, gives a marvellously malevolent performance which carries the movie through its rougher patches. But he needed a worthy rival. Sadly, The Clan has no other worthy characters.
But it does have “Sunny Afternoon.” Twice.