White Elephant

Some editing required, but Pablo Trapero’s film of poverty in an Argentinian slum is nonetheless admirably ambitious, writes JACKSON CAINES.

Film Jeremie Renier Martina Gusman Michael Nyman Pablo Trapero Ricardo Darin White Elephant

White Elephant PosterOriginal Title: Elefante Blanco

Directed By: Pablo Trapero

Starring: Ricardo Darín, Jérémie Renier, Martina Gusman

Running Time: 105 min

In 2002, Fernando Meirelles’s City of God exploded onto our screens in an adrenaline rush of violence and social realism. Revitalising South American cinema, its slum setting birthed the new ‘favela film’ genre, to which Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant can be considered a worthy, if not revolutionary, addition.

Set in the Ciudad Oculta slum of Buenos Aires, the film takes its name from the concrete monstrosity that towers over the slum itself. Originally built in the 1930s, it was intended to be the biggest hospital in Latin America. Construction was halted, and now this ‘white elephant’ houses over 300 destitute families. It is this bleak backdrop against which director Trapero explores a myriad of hard-hitting issues, from gang crime and drug abuse to church politics and crises of faith. The end product may be unwieldy, but the film crams so much engaging content into its two-hour running time that it impresses nonetheless.

Grappling with the slum’s problems are Father Nicolàs (Jérémie Renier) and Father Julián (the effortlessly charismatic Ricardo Darín, star of the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes). They are priests with a social conscience, not afraid to get their hands dirty, doing what they can for the slum residents. When the construction of a new hospital is threatened, they try to persuade the conservative church hierarchy that intervention is needed: “In a situation like this we can’t only be priests.” The activist priest is not a new character in cinema (Karl Malden’s Father Barry from 1954 classic On The Waterfront stands out), but White Elephant’s script makes the subject its own, nicely contrasting the idealism of newcomer Nicolàs with long-suffering Julián’s more realistic attitude.

Lest the film turn into a promotional video for the Catholic church, Trapero and his co-writers are at pains to balance the priests’ heroic qualities with some very human flaws. Julián is sick of being so goddamn caring and dreams of telling the poor slum women to “fuck themselves.” Father Cruz is equally weary, while Nicolás indulges in some very unholy impulses with attractive social worker Luciana,  played with gutsy sincerity by Martina Gusman. Nicolas and Luciana’s relationship doesn’t quite get the screen time it deserves, but what there is remains touching thanks to the strength of the performances.

White Elephant

Jeremy Renner Jérémie Renier in White Elephant

An admirably ambitious film, White Elephant is perhaps a little rough around edges. So at home in the squalid aesthetic of the slum,  it tends to lose its power when it wanders elsewhere, as in the Amazonian prologue and rural coda. Furthermore, veteran composer Michael Nyman’s portentous score feels out of place, its solemn brass a world away from the vibrant, intimate world of the slum.

The film is rescued, however, by the evocative cinematography of Guillermo Nieto, whose camera roams fearlessly through the crowded slum streets. His long tracking shots revel in the sordid environment’s every detail and play on the tension which perpetually simmers just below its surface. Indeed, White Elephant portrayal of the slum’s grizzly side is unflinching. The grimly surreal image of Nicolas and Cruz pushing a black-and-blue corpse in a wheelbarrow is particularly memorable, a brilliant symbol of the thankless task these men have decided is their vocation.

It is this vividness and attention to detail that makes White Elephant, despite its flaws, worth watching all the way to its unforgiving conclusion.