The Argentinian film-maker Pablo Trapero has always brought muscular confidence and flair to his work, and White Elephant is no exception, a movie about faith and hope to which the new papal election has given an arrowhead of relevance.
It is set in the Villa Virgin barrio, the toughest shantytown in Buenos Aires, a grim place dominated surreally by the gigantic ruined TB hospital built in the 1930s; now a deserted wreck and cathedral of poverty known as the "white elephant" where the homeless camp and drug-dealers ply their trade. (It looks, to me, creepily like the Ceaușescu presidential palace in Bucharest.) Two priests work tirelessly to help the people there: Father Julián (Ricardo Darin) and his new younger Belgian colleague, Father Nicolás (Jérémie Renier), who believes in actively mediating drug wars. Julián thinks this will only contaminate and compromise their priesthood, and is listening to his superiors who are asking him to promote the cult of Father Carlos Mujica, the local Marxist priest who was (in real life) killed there in 1974. And meanwhile, Nicolás is beginning to fall in love with social worker Luciana (Martina Gusmán). For me, the focus of the film is too diffuse: is the implied spiritual dimension of the story merely a symptom of poverty? Or does it have an authenticity that transcends everything? And does the division between Nicolás and Julián imply an urgent moral choice? Or are they just two approaches undertaken in equally valid good faith? A flawed drama, but one with emotional power.
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