First time with Pablo Trapero. Caught my eye because of a Kermode feature on comedians playing serious / scary roles, and a double take-inducing trailer which, it turns out, carbon-cut the best sequence in the picture.
Beginning with documentary footage of public inquiry, testimony, an impassioned plea Never Again after the dismantling of the military dictatorship in Argentina in the early 80s. The implication – which is followed through – is that the dawn is a false one, and state-sanctioned public brutality has merely been wounded and forced to retreat into the shadows and corners. Arquímedes Puccio steps into a small vacuum to opportunistically balance his anticommunist reconnaissance for the government with a family-run kidnapping scheme, leaning on his fledgling rugby prodigy son Alejandro’s wealthy connections as targets for abduction. The sombre urgency of the opening sequence introduces the documentary realism of the film (the story itself is based on a real family history) and encourages a critical and empathetic mindset, but the nationwide horrors hinted at become inadequately boiled down onto this micro scale in the body of the clan.
There are all the usual mafioso dynamics: the emphasis on familial solidarity (the porosity of the family through emigrating sons is a sticking point), the fragility of bonds (ranging from Ar’s seemingly impassioned appeals to kinship to his cynical attempts to emotionally enlist his kin as human shields for his operation – “If I fail we all fail” he says imprisoned, in the clinches of defeat) the unsettling proximity of domestic life and brutal business. The trailer makes hay with the latter in particular, but implies a holistic approach to the family which is unrealised: the focus is almost entirely on Ar and Al at the expense of at least three other ignored core family members (room for embellishment here perhaps).
Ar is the film’s greatest asset: he is total dirt, worming his way into the grievances of clients with chameleonic political mendacity (“These are the motherfuckers who run this country” he grumbles to a plaintiff of the target by whom he has been exploited). He is also just quite terrifying to watch, with his Madoff hair and his unnaturally cold blue eyes; he’d make an excellent villain in a more gutsy horror flick.
Beyond Guillermo Francella’s performance the film weaves a disappointingly unremarkable line around and sometimes through various p(l)otholes. The rickety amateurishness of the operation is built into the plot and reflects the politically turbulent climate in which it operates, but it is signalled too early in a way that makes us wonder how the clan – with is glaring indiscretions and 0% hit-rate for unqualified success – ever became established as a criminal organisation. The timeline sweeps briskly over national political fault-lines through the late 70s and early 80s, which leaves missions unresolved and confuses the precarious balance of information, which peripheral figures (Al’s wife, most notably) know how much about what’s going on. An inadvisably non-linear interlude creates superfluous repetition. Al comes to blame Ar for fucking up his life (leading to the bleak conclusion) but there has been little indication of any moral compunction on his part (his only rebellion motivated by a desire to keep his fiancée out of trouble).
Besides these problems the film is an interesting historical document but a pretty unadventurous piece of entertainment. Not as shocking as it lets on, and pretty reliant on an accomplished central turn, the tentpole at the centre of a sagging canvas.