Over the past decade, Argentine director Pablo Trapero has steadily made a name for himself with socially engaged films about issues such as police corruption or migrant workers. His latest, White Elephant, generally fits the same mould and focuses on two priests trying to make a difference in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden slums of Buenos Aires.
Father Julián (Ricardo Darín, most famous for the Oscar-winning The Secret in their Eyes) is seen undergoing an MRI scan at the very start and is clearly facing serious health issues. A younger priest, the Belgian Father Nicolas (Jérémie Renier, a regular of European art-house cinema), owes his life to Julián after the latter rescued him from his Amazonian mission, where paramilitary forces had murdered the locals. Nicolas, now suffering from guilt over his inability to protect his former parish, joins Julián in the Buenos Aires shantytown of Ciudad Oculta, amid gang wars, poverty and lack of social funding – there is a new housing project planned but the construction workers are not even getting paid.
Ciudad Oculta, convincingly portrayed by the film’s powerful cinematography, is a slum with a population exceeding 30,000. Right in the middle of it is an unfinished building, now nicknamed the “White Elephant” and serving as sanctuary for drug addicts, petty criminals and gang members. It was intended to become a hospital but those plans were interrupted in 1955 when Perón was overthrown, and as such is a metaphor for the stunted development of the whole slum.
The past of Argentina is a presence in the subtext, and the shadow of real-life Buenos Aires priest and activist, Carlos Mugica, assassinated in 1974 by right-wing militants, looms particularly large over the film (which is even dedicated to his memory). Father Julián strives to see Mugica as a role model, and his famous last words (“Now more than ever we must be with the people”) announce the central dilemma. Surrounded by harsh realities, mere prayers are not enough and both men realise that some form of action is needed for real change to happen. The two of them have opposing views as to how to go about this however, with Nicolas eager to be more pro-active while Julián knows that acting will force them to pick a side within a bitter gang war and put lives at risk.
As potent as all this is, the film is unfortunately weakened by too many melodramatic elements which add little to the film and instead muddle its narrative. On top of the two priests’ personal struggles and crises of faith, we also get subplots concerning Nicolas’ romance with a social worker, a teenage gang member attempting to change his ways and another priest who is killed by the drug cartel for being a police informer. In the end it feels like too much and these separate strands don’t form one cohesive whole. White Elephant does have much to admire, but it fails to pack the emotional punch a drama of such themes and issues really ought to.
White Elephant: ★★★
Dir: Pablo Trapero