Growing up in the UK at the time my knowledge of 1980s Argentina consisted mainly of the Guerra del Atlantico Sur (or The Falklands War if you prefer) and the pint sized footballing genius of Diego Armando Maradona. A man whose left hand became, for a while, even more famous than his feet.
I knew nothing of the Dirty War that was, and had been since the early 70s, playing out on Argentine soil. Over 7,000 left-wing activists, students, journalists, trade unionists, Marxists, and Peronist guerillas were killed by right-wing death squads and in retaliation took nearly as many lives in return. Leopoldo Galtieri was just one of four military dictators that led the country between 1981 and 1983.
It's against this backdrop that Pablo Trapero's crime drama plays out. It's closely based on the true story of the Puccios. A Buenos Aires family that used the political uncertainty and corruption of the time to get rich on the back of an ugly, violent, murderous kidnapping racket.
Amongst middle class suburbia paterfamilias Arquimedes Puccio (played chillingly by Guillermo Francella) is the cold, calculated mastermind of a small mob dedicated to brutal extortion schemes. He's gentle, though not exactly loving, towards his family but seems capable of exploding into violence at any moment.
As his children grow older some are co-opted into the family business. Most importantly Alejandro (Peter Lanzini) who becomes the conflicted heart of the piece. A star rugby player nicknamed 'champ' and loved to the point of hero worship by both fans and team mates. He feels unease about destroying other people's lives but loves both his family and the extraordinary wealth it brings. So he carries on with it.
Lanzini's performance is great. His Kevin Keegan curls help cement him in our mind as a sports star of the era and such is his magnetism we can almost root for him, hope he can find the keys to the gilded cage his father has constructed for him and his family. New love Monica (Stefania Koessl), with her dreams of moving to Sweden, appears to give him the impetus to do this.
The other siblings are more sketched than fully realised. Brothers Maguila (Gaston Cocchiarale) and Guillermo (Franco Masini) are both out of the country for large parts of the film and the sisters appear to be shielded from Arquimedes and his gang's worst excesses for the most part. Silvia (Giselle Motta) looking out for her younger sister Adriana (Antonia Bengoechea) who becomes increasingly aware of what papa does for a living.
Their mother Epifania (Lili Popovich) is not, perhaps, unlike many other women of that era. She knows how Arquimedes makes his money and remains silently supportive of him. Perhaps mentally beaten into submission from years of psychological bullying. The admirable inscrutability of her performance makes it hard to tell.
What's not hard to tell is where the film's going. There are regular jump forwards to elements of the denouement and when the military dictatorship comes to an end and democracy takes over in Argentina the writing appears to be on the wall for the Puccios. It's abundantly clear that things will not end well - though not apparent who for.
That you care so much is testament to Trapero's tight, taut, storytelling and his eye for colour. Witness Arquimedes hosing down his yard in the early morning sunlight and then overseeing a brutal slaying by moonlight. The fact that the former act seems as sinister as the killing gives you an idea of how the tension has been ramped up.
Sebastian Escofet's score unobtrusively uses small tricks to highlight the unease in some of the seemingly ordinary family interactions and the use of pop music (The Kinks, Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots, er...David Lee Roth) to both delineate and link scenes may be borrowed from Scorsese but works a treat.
Clips of Argentine TV news from the time help to create context and though that all adds to the depth of the picture it's not necessary for you to know any more about Argentinian history than I did to appreciate this highly impressive, well shot, and well acted film. After watching I certainly wanted to learn more so not only was it an emotional cinematic event but an educational one too. Buen trabajo Senor Trapero.