White Elephant


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

White Elephant
"An immersive dive into an offbeat and murky corner of modern Argentine life."

Pablo Trapero's powerful and intelligent drama benefits from the presences of both veteran Argentine actor Ricardo Darin (star of the excellent Carancho - also directed by Trapero) and the titular White Elephant itself- the nickname given to the colossal ruins of what was once intended to be a major hospital in the 1930s . Unfinished and deserted, the skeletal, burned out structure looms over the "Villa Virgin", a dangerous, ramshackle, rat-warren of a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

It is a fascinating location, and Trapero's rarely still camera frequently follows the various inhabitants through the hospital and the adjacent shanty town's maze of tunnels, corridors and stairwells, some planned, others artificially constructed from or warped with detritus, to the point where viewers might well feel truly disoriented. Like Carancho, the film is an immersive dive into an offbeat and murky corner of modern Argentine life. Trapero successfully conveys how this is a place pulsing with as much vibrant life as despair.

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The ruined hospital does have its uses - it is home to two Catholic priests, the dedicated but increasingly weary veteran Father Julián Darín) and his younger but guilt-ridden Belgian recruit Nicolás (Jérémie Renier), who was the lone survivor of a massacre in the Amazon. Nicholás is there, hand-picked, to ultimately replace Julián, who is devoting more and more time to battling the inertia in the political circles of his religious order and the government. This lack of concern from the higher-ups and associated corporations is ultimately threatening the planned construction of new housing for the town's inhabitants. Without the new housing and the hope it brings, Julián is worried that the pressure kettle that is the shanty town, wracked by a growing drug turf feud between two cartels, will boil over.

Nicolás' battles are more with his own mind and with Julián. Torn by his guilt, Nicolás soon finds himself driven to take a more personal involvement in the turf wars going on in the town, something the horrified Julián believes will negate the priests' ability to reach out to all sides thanks to their impartiality. Nicolás also has to face his growing attraction to local social worker Luciana (Martina Gusman, also from Carancho), who is increasingly unable to cope with the grind of the favela and having to have an on-the-spot solution to every grievance by the townsfolk. All are facing their own tests of faith.

Trapero's fluid handheld camera fully exploits the visually arresting, intense melting pot of the town both in more serene moments (such as a nighttime party and the ordaining of a local boy) and in sequences where the tension skyrockets - such as fast moving police raids and gangland gun clashes. One particular tracking shot sequence, where Nicolás journeys into a maze-like cartel headquarters on a reckless mission to arrange a ceasefire, is particularly compelling and claustrophobic.

There is a real sense of movement, of immediacy and intensity to this harsh but heartfelt film that avoids melodrama while shining a light on contemporary Argentina's lingering social ills. References in the narrative to the town's former murdered priest, Father Mujica, suggests ominously that such a great social disaster will claim many more martyrs before any resolution can be found.

Reviewed on: 25 Apr 2013
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The story of the friendship between two priests who settle in a Buenos Aires slum area to carry out their ministry and social work.
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Director: Pablo Trapero

Writer: Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Pablo Trapero

Starring: Ricardo Darín, Jérémie Renier, Martina Gusman, Miguel Arancibia, Federico Barga, Esteban Díaz, Pablo Gatti, Walter Jacob, Raul Ramos, Susana Varela, Julio Zarza

Year: 2012

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Argentina, Spain

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