When imagining Argentina, superficial references to the tango, polo playing and the pop culture legacy of Eva Perón may apply for some. But the reality is you cannot define Argentina in such limiting terms. Its place within Latin America is as complex and contradictory as its neighbors, existing as a country rife with history and invaluable contributions to world history. Yet, to take a closer look at Argentina is to gaze into a mirror that reflects the best and worst of human nature.
From award-winning director Pablo Trapero (“Carancho,” “White Elephant”), THE CLAN is an unflinching depiction of the consequences wrought by Argentina’s dictatorship through the prism of the incredible true story of the Puccio family. A narrative spun with equal parts suspense, action and intrigue, THE CLAN offers an unrelenting chronicle on the manner with which this seemingly normal middle class family afforded its comfortable lives through kidnapping, extortion and murder. With laser-like precision, Trapero carefully and without embellishment ensnares and provokes the audience to think about what they’ve witnessed long after the credits roll. At what point do we lose our sense of morality and ethics? How can people, especially those of a privileged status, allow themselves to be persuaded to commit such atrocious acts in the name of protecting the greater good, like a family’s well being?
Released in Argentina in August 2015 to great acclaim and record breaking box office success, THE CLAN not only reignited interest in the Puccios’ life story, it has been acclaimed for offering a potent cautionary tale for a new generation to process. For the second time in 30 years, the Puccio clan succeeded in rocking the nation with their secrets and lies.
Chronicling a series of abductions that occurred between 1982 and 1985, the film is at once a riveting drama to view in the present and a searing indictment of Argentina’s past. Viewing THE CLAN will lead many to ask the universal question asked whenever monsters are revealed to exist in the most unexpected sectors of society: Why?
It is not enough to say the family simply acted on the father’s wishes to protect their way of life. Sons, daughters, friends, all participated in these crimes willingly, despite the very real possibility of being caught. Even as their moral conscience would sometimes break through, they continued with these deeds without ever their neighbors’ awareness. The lack of a definitive answer as to why the Puccios’ resorted to such wicked deeds may frustrate those seeking a black and white closure to their narrative on screen. And, any clear answers remain with the late Arquímedes Puccio, who maintained his lack of culpability to the end.
Sometimes real life can truly be stranger than fiction. However, in the case of the infamous Puccios, the mind reels. In preparing for the North American release of THE CLAN, director Pablo Trapero, producer Matías Mosteirín, legendary Argentinian film star Guillermo Francella and rising star Peter Lanzani sat down to contemplate several questions about the legacy of the Puccio clan. It wasn’t enough to simply recreate the period details of the era. The filmmakers and cast were charged with a challenging task: to bring humanity and truth to the people and events that defy most sensibilities. In the conversation that follows, it is evident that the commitment shared by the entire production was resolute. EL CLAN may not be a documentary. However, if they learned one thing in bringing Trapero’s vision to life, it is that the reality of the Puccio family retains an all-too-tragic relevance to the time we are living today.
JORGE CARREON: What do you remember of the Puccios’ era in Argentina? How did that color your efforts in creating THE CLAN? Did you start with wanting to make a statement about Argentina first or capture the essence of the Puccios’ extraordinary story?
PABLO TRAPERO: When I first heard the news of the Puccios, I was 13 or 14 years old. The Puccios were a family that seemed like any ordinary family. Even within their neighborhood, people could not believe they could have responsible for such crimes because the family seemed so normal. Many years later when I was preparing my film “Leonera” in 2007, I started thinking about making a film based on the actual Puccio case, but I only knew the superficial details about the family, nothing else. There wasn’t a lot of information, especially how it related to Arquímedes within the context of the time. During this research process, I began to realize this intimate story was absolutely universal. However, I would also be able to tell the story about an era in Argentina’s history that is not so well known. There have been many films about the dictatorship, those dark years that are part of Argentina, like “The Official Story,” which won an Academy Award® and spoke about the early years of the democracy. And there have been other films, too, that have depicted the years before and after, but not the transition. That step was very painful for the country. For many people, it represented the hope of something new, but also that hope was very weak. Because our past history was so hard, it felt like it was conspiring against it. That’s something I remember from when I was a kid. We felt so much euphoria over the arrival of democracy, but also the fear that it wouldn’t last. There’s even a line in the movie where a character is asked, “How long will this last?” and he responds, “Two years.” That best represents the era and the spirit of some people who were very skeptical about whether the democracy would work. At one point, late in the process, I decided to start with Alfonsín speaking about “Nunca Más,” a statement on how we as a country can never repeat the past again. The case of the Puccio family was a symptom of a sick society. The shift in government is also a symptom of that time. That shift is what brought the Puccios’ story to an end. Hence, there isn’t the role of an investigator in the film because it was not so much the will of someone in particular to catch the family. The political changes are what brought the era of the Puccios, and other people like them, to an end. They became known as “the hand of unemployed labor,” meaning they were individuals who worked for the military who lost their “jobs” once the democratic government was brought in. They began to improvise these privates businesses to continue what they had done for the previous regime. There were several cases like Puccio, but none so extreme because they did not involve their own family members. So, it all happened in reverse. I realized that the film could stand as a testimony to this era in Argentina’s history when I started to understand and investigate the intimate details of the family.
CARREON: Given the fascinating psychology of the Puccio clan, why not make a documentary about the family?
PT: I chose not to take the documentary route. The family’s story is incredible and it was tough even writing a script at that time. Would people even believe this story, much less accept them? They would have said, “Trapero has gone crazy and just wrote whatever he wanted.” It was something we talked a lot about with Matías. How much of this incredible story could be credible to the public. The simple truth is I’ve always believed in it as a narrative film and never as documentary. Still, to make this movie, we completed a lengthy period of investigation. The case was well known in niches, but it was not something that people talked about on the street. Those who would talk to you about the case were usually from the previous generations. A book has since been published, just before the premiere of the film. But we have a lot of research material, interviews, conversations, all of which had no place in fiction. Maybe some day we will use it for a documentary material again.
CARREON: Was it a challenge to distill the information you gathered to create a narrative script with impact, but without distorting the essence of the Puccios?
TRAPERO: It was a big challenge for me because it’s the first time I’ve made a film based on a true story. It’s the first time the characters in the film have the names of real people. That’s a major responsibility. The families of the victims will hear their real names. The question became how do we work with and process something that is based on their real lives? For most of the people who see this film, it may seem like a work of fiction but it is based on a true story. It was so helpful to speak with the families of the victims, especially with Rogelia Pozzi and Guillermo Manoukian. We also spoke to the judges on the case, journalists who investigated the story during that time. We also spoke to psychologists who could give us some idea as to the pathology of the case. We went to the neighbors that lived in the San Isidro district. Alejandro’s teammates at the rugby club gave us a perspective as to who he was. In reality and in the film, it was this group who remained the most skeptical that Alejandro could be guilty. They still think it was a gross error.
PETER LANZANI: It’s a really dark story. They did all of these things not only for money, but for power. I think the most sinister thing about them was that they would kidnap people they knew, their own friends or Alejandro’s friends that played rugby with him. It does reflect the decade that Argentina lived during the dictatorship. I didn’t live through it, but I studied it. I know too many people that lost family members or friends.
MATÍAS MOSTEIRÍN: Immediately after the Puccios were arrested and jailed, many people of their status felt they were falsely accused. It took a long time for people to accept that this family, which appeared to be a normal family, of good standing and social mobility, with great moral authority, could even be capable of creating this inferno of intimidation in their own home. Pablo is a very respected cineaste in Argentina and his films are greatly appreciated. Because no one had ever sought to review this story with a fresh perspective, I think his reputation helped in obtaining the cooperation of the people willing to offer their testimonies.
TRAPERO: They offered their most intimate knowledge, people who had been in the Puccios’ home for dinner while they had someone in captivity.
MOSTEIRÍN: The film then began to unfold for us. What usually happens with projects based on real stories, the adaptation process requires many changes. We clearly saw a visible pattern of what could be the movie. Pablo made the correct decision to respect the facts of the actual case and shape them naturally while building the narrative of the film. Because the script is based on court records and testimony from the relatives of victims, and the testimony of lawyers and judges, the film does not try to deny the truth. We did not have to resort to falsehoods.
TRAPERO: Of course we did not have transcripts of the conversations between Alejandro and his father. But we did have letters; we did have an idea as to how communicated. We did not have video, because these were the 80s, before we entered this culture of filming everything. However, we had access to lots of photographs, which were incredibly helpful, not only for the writing process but for the actors, too. They could study and analyze how they stood, how Arquímedes looked at his son. It was a great process, but in reconstructing these lives, we remained as respectful of the elements we had close to us.
CARREON: Why do you think the families and people involved in the research wanted to offer up such intimate details with you?
MOSTEIRÍN: I think for the pain, the need for this story to be recognized.
TRAPERO: They’ve carried many years of great loneliness. Behind this story are many people who sought justice in very difficult circumstances and it cost a lot to be heard. This is a case that eventually proved the criminal responsibility of these people. It was important to have this testimonial. Some people were very uncomfortable with the film being made, which speaks to how difficult it remains for many people, like the rugby club and the San Isidro neighborhood, to face the facts.
CARREON: The Puccio family dynamic is frighteningly normal to view on screen. It certainly magnifies the intensity with how the characters of Arquímedes and Alejandro interact with each other on screen. If one was the monster of the family, the other is depicted as something decided more human, certainly conflicted, but possessing a conscience.
MOSTEIRÍN: The kids had no real future, but Alejandro had a great future ahead. He had a great talent and the prospect of a successful career in the world of rugby. He was also an attractive guy, seductive, greatly loved by his peers. He was someone who had plenty of opportunities in life to develop, which made him privileged in that sense. Yet, instead of taking all these options before him, he chose or could not remove himself from the criminal path traced by his father. We were very interested in why he decided to be a part of what ultimately condemned him to ruining his life.
LANZANI: I think Alejandro knew what he was doing was wrong. No one with common sense would think that kidnapping your friends is a good idea. He was really ambitious. I think it was his decision to make. He was 24, 25 years old, which means he could make his own decision. He couldn’t stand up to his father. He didn’t have the ability to tell him that he didn’t want to continue. Alejandro carried this baggage for the rest of his life. When he tried look back at his past, he was really upset by the fact he betrayed what he wanted for himself.
MOSTEIRÍN: Despite all the information we had at our disposal, we were never going to know the minute-by-minute, day-to-day aspects of their family life. But they had a life of routine like any other, with the same relationships and feelings and moral commandments like all families. It was very important to Pablo to establish that the Puccios’ family dynamic was identifiable to any other. Another important character was the mother, Epifanía. The level of psychological manipulation, emotional and moral subjugation imposed by Arquímedes on his children is evident. However, the mother was much more subtle. She allowed for her children to fall under the mandate of the father. There is a sacrifice here, which makes the mother such a tragic figure in the classic sense. However, if one wants to think today as to how this story is inevitable, you need to think about the double standards of this family. How far can we sustain appearances while living with a secret? All societies create monsters, which appear from one day to the other. And we will always say, “How could this happen?”
TRAPERO: There is a saying in Argentina, “You can not cover the sun with your hands.” There is a time when reality is so strong it is very difficult to pretend that things do not happen.
MOSTEIRÍN: Or maintain all is normal.
TRAPERO: I think the film allows the general public, both inside and outside Argentina, to attend an allegory. When a society does not face or covers up the problem, the problem goes somewhere else. Audiences in other countries will confront a shared reality it depicts that has nothing to do with the Argentina of 30 years ago or the Argentina of today. But there is something in the relationship between the context and this phenomenon that generates these events, which unfortunately keep repeating in various societies.
CARREON: Once THE CLAN went before cameras, how did the knowledge of having the survivors of the Puccio clan’s abductions relive such painful events affect the manner in which the film was crafted? The film has a noir-ish aesthetic, but remains quite emotionally charged as an intimate family drama. And many already know the outcome.
TRAPERO: It was a great challenge, because at times the narrative was very extreme. However, if that intimacy is achieved on the scene, you accept it. Every family has a story it wants to hide. Stories exist behind closed doors. I think that also helps the audience feel a connection to the family because it is something we all share. Still, it was a challenge to make a thriller into a melodrama, or maybe it is a melodrama inside of a thriller. I only know that creating just a melodrama was not what I wanted. And there have been plenty of thrillers that are just about kidnappings. The challenge was this crossing of genres. Even at some point there are elements that might be identified as being from a horror film. There is a lot at play here in relation to what the audience will feel. From getting the audience excited, to being entertained, to feeling anxiety and reflection. All of these things happen when you see a film and that is what motivates me to make them. When it came to THE CLAN, I did think about how I could surprise people start to finish, but not feel so disconnected from the family that they are not emotionally involved because what they do is so extreme. Finding that proximity was really a challenge, but I am glad people are having a strong emotional reaction to the film while being terrified by the history. People do identify with the victims and feel fear towards people who come across as real on screen. These are not actors simply acting. I wasn’t sure if the film would land right or not because of these contrasts, like seeing Arquímedes in an act of violence or being a dutiful father teaching mathematics to his daughter. These are very extreme situations that work to create these shocks of emotion contained throughout the film.
MOSTEIRÍN: It’s a proposition built for the senses. The film has staged scenes. Decisions were made on lighting and what type of lens to use. The production design, the sound, the specific style of editing was also a bit extreme in terms of what we’ve done before. However, I want to emphasize that when we started to make the film, although it is about a very specific case, which happened during a very specific political context relating to our country, we always wanted the film to mean something to viewers around the world. That was always a goal, and one of the things we had clear was that the narrative had to be as universal as possible. Audiences are able to have an emotional relationship with the film that goes beyond Argentina’s history, beyond the real case, so that people could feel like they are inside this family. After seeing the finished film, the viewer is inside the home, in the car, they are very close to them. That was a nice challenge to meet.
CARREON: Actor Guillermo Francella delivers an unforgettable performance as Arquímedes Puccio. Audiences have seen him in dramatic turns, but he’s also one of the revered comedic talents of his generation. How did you gain his trust and confidence?
TRAPERO: Before I had a finished the script I needed to have confirmed actor. We had a meeting with Guillermo and I told him, “I want you to do this character. I do not have the finished script, but I want you to tell me if you want to do it. Not only will it be a dramatic character, but your first villain, a guy who terrifies people. Your fans will hate you.” Not all actors have that sort of relationship with the public because it is a difficult one. But that trust and bond with an actor is important to me. My wife is an actress and we have made several films together. That relationship of trust and risk shared by an actor and director in creating a character is one thing I enjoy most about making a film. I knew I wanted Guillermo for the film and from there we established a bond. It was very demanding and very intense.
GUILLERMO FRANCELLA: I have a strong opinion because I also have lived during the time of the Puccios. I was very informed about their story. When Trapero offered me the role, I knew exactly what he was talking about. I lived in that area of San Isidro, I walked by their door of the hundreds of times, never knowing what was happening in there. We were able to construct bit by bit who Arquímedes was with all the information gathered from people who knew him, how we behaved, how he conducted himself, his manner of speaking, his posture, his physical being. It was a very interesting process.
CARREON: Guillermo, what proved the main catalyst for your being able to inhabit the skin of such this polarizing father figure?
FRANCELLA: The rehearsal process was extremely useful. During pre-production, once the cast was in place, we had many meetings. It was very helpful to get to know each other because were had to generate a sense of chemistry beyond what was written in the script. The rehearsals were essential because there wasn’t much video research material on Arquímedes or the family to properly observe their behavior together. Still, once we were all together, it became very clear what each of us had to do. I worked closely with Trapero on Arquímedes’ calm manner, his cold stare. We tried to make sure he never blinked during a conversation. He had an intimidating stare. We crafted a certain attitude that was affable, sociable, educated and respectable. There wasn’t much in his transition from being the man who helped his daughters with their homework, helping them with their tasks to executing the most atrocious kidnappings. He was a very relaxed person. To find that contrast when he lost his composure, like the shooting in the car because Alejandro would not complete his task? Grabbing him by the collar and slamming him against the dressing room wall at his shop, as well as the argument in jail were the two hardest scenes to complete.
LANZANI: Guillermo had a look that was like from the Devil itself. Pablo understood Arquímedes as being the Devil, not the patriarch of a family.
CARREON: Peter, this is your first major film role. What proved essential for you in building your understanding of Alejandro?
LANZANI: It wasn’t easy, but I really wanted to try. I love movies and this is my first one and it was difficult, but Guillermo and Pablo helped me a lot. I think the harder the challenge, the better for me so I can learn more. The psychology of Alejandro was the most difficult thing to create, you know? He’s must have been pre-occupied with so many things. The guilt he carried, of having his father always telling him what he had to do and never having the courage to stand up to him. He exposed his soul to do these terrible things and lost himself forever. The intensity this generates in some of the scenes was difficult. It’s a story with a lot of impact. We tried to do our best and work from the details we had at hand. These were clues we needed so people could see the movie like a documentary about the Puccio family.
CARREON: The final minutes of THE CLAN may surpass the violent crimes depicted earlier in the film in terms of impact. What proved the bigger challenge? Was it the climax of the final scene in court or the recreation of the Puccios’ crimes?
TRAPERO: The ending. But it was a challenge to write and it was also a challenge to stage. I worked again with (Julián Apezteguia) my director of photographer on “Carancho.” I proposed to the entire crew that we create a physical sensation for the audience, to bring them as close to the characters as possible. That is why when the camera is inside the car, you are also sitting in the car. When someone is in the bathroom one, you’re positioned right there next to them. In the script there were several long sequences written, like the kidnapping of Manoukian. All of kidnappings were envisioned as sequences that turn you into the victim. The film is primarily told from the perspective of either Alejandro or Arquímedes, except during the abduction scenes. But the final scene is about deciding who is the victim here? Is it Alejandro or Arquímedes? It plays with that sensation, because you’ve seen the two sides of Alejandro. It was always written this way in the script, but it was a very difficult shot to create. It took many days of filming to complete and some FX work, too.
CARREON: Music plays a key element in THE CLAN, often functioning as a counterpoint to the action on the screen. In some moments, it even provides a layer of dark comedy. How were these classic rock songs of the era chosen?
TRAPERO: Many are songs are of the time, but not others, like Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Kinks. It was all music that was banned in Argentina during the period of the military. Interestingly, from the time of the Falklands, music in English was banned. But families of the middle class did not listen to music in Spanish. It was trendy to listen to music in English, so that speaks a lot of the time. Some tracks were chosen to represent the era, like David Lee Roth was big in 1985 and Serú Girán was a well-known band in Argentina around 1982. Virus was another Argentinian band that represents 1983. We also have Ella Fitzgerald, Creedence, The Kinks, especially with “Sunny Afternoon” (1966), because the lyrics were ironic.
CARREON: No one likes to have their dirty laundry aired, particularly within a fiercely protective community. Yet, THE CLAN was a massive hit in Argentina. Why do you think the film struck such a chord with audiences?
FRANCELLA: We are experiencing “Pucciomania” in Argentina at the moment. Everyone is talking about them. In the media, police investigators, everyone.
TRAPERO: It was great to see the film do so well in Argentina. This can mean that the public will accept movies that do not follow certain formulas. I am very pleased that the public is encouraged to look at these types of stories, to reflect and to leave the theater and discuss with their families what they’ve just seen, to talk about the history of Argentina. The film allows people to reflect on the present, on the internal lives of every family. It was heartening to see in Argentina that the public had the maturity to deal with issues that are disturbing. We all know that Argentina is known for the tango and its constant reflecting on the past. Interestingly, the country has one of the highest amounts of therapists per inhabitant, but I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. For me, the success of THE CLAN is a good sign for these types of films, because it means we can continue making more of this kind.
LANZANI: I think our movies should show the things that happened in our country. The dictatorship was the worst thing. We have moved on away from that period. At least, I hope so. I only want my country to be happy, to be at peace and for the world to be at peace. It’s not so easy, but we will try.
CARREON: What can be said of the surviving Puccio family members today? Were they part of the process? How have they reacted to THE CLAN?
TRAPERO: We tried to reach out to Epifanía, but she would not speak to us. We also tried to speak with Maguila via Skype because we were able to speak to friends of his and Alejandro’s. However, we were unsuccessful. An interesting thing did happen with Arquímedes. THE CLAN was first announced in 2012. I was working on another project at the time, but after the film was released, Arquímedes reached out to the media said he wanted to meet “Trapero because I’m going to tell him the real truth.” When I returned to Argentina to begin THE CLAN, he had died. If I could have spoken with him, I imagine he would have said what he said until the day he died: He was not guilty, that he had nothing to do with these crimes and that he was a victim. But the real question that I would have liked to have asked is why did he do this to his family? Because when you see the movie or even when we were doing research, one can understand that he loved his family in a very special and very crazy way. Everything he did was for his family. But at one point he makes a decision, as you see in the film, that affects them all.
CARREON: Guillermo, do you think you have a greater understanding of Arquímedes Puccio today?
FRANCELLA: No, I’ll never understand him. Never. Even after seeing his testimony. Before his death as an old man, he was already free and living in La Pampa, a province in Argentina. He remained with that arrogance, denying his role in the crimes without any remorse. I hate him more as a result. I’m sure if I were given a chance to speak with him, it would have been a very sterile conversation, without emotion because there is nothing that would make him want to reflect on the past. He worked for the secret service; he fought against progress. When the democracy came, he continued his “line of work” for personal ambition. These kidnappers were shitty people, if you pardon the expression. He spoke of divine justice, but he was already old and crazy. I don’t think I would want to cross paths with him today.
CARREON: How have the families of the victims reacted to THE CLAN?
MOSTEIRÍN: Several have come to the premiere.
TRAPERO: Matías insisted that many of them came to the premiere. A few said things that shocked me, like they felt they “saw” the real Arquímedes on film. That impacted me. But they also felt the film exists, in a silent way, as a tribute to the families and the victims. It is a different way of doing justice. The Puccios preyed on people, denying all reality in their behavior. There was never a moment to apologize to the families, which sometimes happens in these cases. So I think it helped the victims to have a sense of moral compensation, beyond the court. Everyone in Argentina, and throughout the world, can now speak of the cruelty of this family and how the victims suffered the madness of these people.
From 2oth Century Fox International, THE CLAN is now playing in select theaters.