White Elephant (Elefante blanco)

Argentina (2012) Dir. Pablo Trapero

In the slums of Buenos Aries known as Ciudad Oculta catholic priest Julián (Ricardo Darín) welcomes younger Belgian priest Nicolas (Jérémie Renier) to work alongside him and atheist social worker Luciana (Martina Gusman) in rebuilding of a hospital in the area for the local people living in poverty as well as trying to bring peace to the social unrest brewing between two warring neighbourhoods.

If the previous works from writer-director Pablo Trapero have taught us anything it is that he is unafraid to confront the issue of corruption in the modern world. 2008’s Lion’s Den explored its presence in Mexican female prisons while 2010’s Carancho looked at venal lawyers and hospital workers. Whether an intended trilogy or not, White Elephant (the huge unused former hospital building now a haven for drug lords, criminals and homeless people) quietly follows this trend with the pious hierarchy deliberately dragging their feet on helping the poor and needy, although the central theme is one of hope and the faith of the ecclesiastical volunteers being challenged head on.

In a somewhat grimy and impersonal start to the film, the first act is slow and rather uneventful serving to introduce the main characters and set the scene of the hardships facing both the parish and the residents of this squalid area. Money is sparse, jobs even less so, morale is down yet crime, violence and drug abuse is very much a healthy but unwanted presence. Little outside of the quotidian tasks and errands is shown, aside from a teased sexual frisson between the two younger co-workers Nicolas and Luciana (which comes to predictable fruition later in the film) and the subplot of Julián’s elders insisting he teaches the locals the word of a real life former Marxist priest Father Carlos Mujica who was killed under suspicious circumstances in Ciudad Oculta 1974.

The story really starts when the two would be lovers witness a young lad being chased and shot at by a gang from a rival neighbourhood over turf demarcation. The lad is killed and with Julián away, Nicolas takes it upon himself to retrieve the body from the rival streets and possibly act as an intermediate between the two sides in the hope of finding a peaceful resolution. Instead this earns him a rebuke from Julián and finds the flames of the feud have been stoked even more. To add further strain to the already fraught area, the workers on the construction of new hospital have been stiffed on their payments, but some investigation by Luciana finds it is not the local council holding out but the church, which comes as a shock to Julián.

Unquestionably powerful and confrontational in its remit, the only question one has when watching this film is divining Trapero’s intent with it – is he making a social statement on poverty or casting a wry eye over Catholic faith? He does both to great effect but knowing which one is his primary target helps us evaluate the true success of the story. With regard to the latter there is no Bible bashing or mocking, with both priests being shown as earnest and devoted men who don’t use their positions for benefit nor standing judgement of anyone. Having avoided death in a previous project in the jungle, Nicolas is the more fragile of the two and his time in the slums does little to strengthen his resolve. Already feeling guilty for finding lust and love with Luciana while everyone around him suffers, Nicolas tries to finds comfort from Julián, whom he later discovers has a terminal neurological disease and that Nicolas is to be his intended replacement.

Employing cinema vérité style camerawork for the scenes shot in what I assume are genuine slums of Buenos Aries, the film has an almost intrusive feel about it as we follow the cast through the muddy, wet streets, past the paint peeled walls, stony paths with the air thick with a stale, sweaty atmosphere. Yet the cinematography is sharp and clear rather than gritty and untarnished but doesn’t detract from the overall tone of desperation of the impoverished locales. However while we are supposed, one assumes, to be sympathetic to them for living in such squalor, the general behaviour of many of the residents, the need for the young to cause trouble and the fact that drug gangs conduct their business under such extreme conditions makes this difficult for the viewer.

Perhaps we should be applauding them for carrying on with their lives in the face of this adversity but the apparent visual lack of any of them trying to better themselves works against them. This is where the church and the civil authorities step into the fray as the nominal antagonists, both hiding behind the earnestness and hard work of Julián, Nicolas and Luciana unaware (or possibly unconcerned) that they are breaking them down. Again Trapero is keen to paint them as the bad guys but doesn’t portray them as deliberately nasty, just unapologetically self-serving and divisive, but it works well as key plot device for the crisis of faith the two priests experience.

Ricardo Darín is arguably Argentina’s greatest modern acting export and having worked with him in Carancho, Trapero made no mistake in recruiting him for the role of Julián; maybe not his finest hour but a fine one none the less. As ever Mrs. Trapero (Martina Gusman to you and me) is called upon as the token but fiery female lead, providing the  energy and heart to the proceedings while Jérémie Renier offer solid support, taking some time to warm up as Nicolas.

The intent to strike an emotional blow with White Elephant is evident once the meandering first act is dealt with, but by taking too long in delivering the open gambit Trapero merely bruises our sensibilities rather than makes them bleed. Still, it’s a well acted, well made and raw enough viewing experience that makes it point once it gets going.