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White Elephant

January 15, 2014

White Elephant (2012)
Director: Pablo Trapero
Actors: Jérémie Renier, Ricardo Darín, Martina Gusman

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Synopsis: Belgian priest, Nicolas (Jérémie Renier), witnesses the brutal slaying of an entire village by bandits when on a mission deep in the Amazon jungle. While recuperating, he is recruited by Father Julián to come and work with him in one of the slums of Buenos Aires, where the church are involved in a civic project to try and rebuild the old, derelict ‘White Elephant’ hospital as housing for the needy.

Review: Pablo Trapero confirms his status as one of the best directors on the planet with this, another one of his intense, hard-hitting bulletins from across the social divide in Argentina. White Elephant is replete with his trademark viscerality – particularly the epic tracking shots and long takes that detail the poverty and deprivation in the sheer cavernous immensity of the titular Buenos Aires slum.

What is so compelling about Trapero’s films is that although they’re inherently truthful social dramas, they contain just enough genre machinations to help them break them out of any potentially preachy, didactic confines. Potentially combustible issues float in and out of the narrative – the young Belgian Father, Nicolas, sleeps with one of the female social workers on the project, but the complexity of such a union is honoured in that Trapero doesn’t try to conclude it too sensationally one way or the other (they neither break up, nor get found out), and Father Julián’s poor health is kept as a background feature rather than being foregrounded too much in the cheap pursuit of pathos. Admittedly, (huge spoiler alert) Father Julián is felled in a shoot-out near the story’s end, but it’s more in keeping with the politics of the piece which demonstrate how, despite the goodwill of him and the other volunteers, the sheer vicious circle of police/gangs/church/government corruption means any substantial progress on social welfare projects appears perpetually blighted.

White Elephant is also a fantastically cast film. Trapero regular (and wife), Martina Gusman, is her usual utterly believable, jaded, exasperated self, Jérémie Renier does a fantastic job as the young European clergyman – rebelling against the culture of cynicism he sees around him, and Ricardo Darín reminds me once again why he has one of the most expressive faces and personas in contemporary cinema. (January 2014)

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