Elefante Blanco (Pablo Trapero — Argentina/Spain/France) 110 minutes
Pablo Trapero’s Elefante Blanco premiered at Cannes last May but it is on its French release, in the run-up to the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope, that it has acquired an uncanny prescience. The film, a tale of Argentine priests ministering in the massive shanty-town of Ciudad Oculta, actually features the Archbishop of Buenos Aires as a character, an office that was occupied by none other than Cardinal Bergoglio from 1998 until last week. It is not clear if the character is explicitly based on the man who is now pope, but the film’s subject matter and background are certainly reminiscent of the preoccupations of a man who has been outspoken throughout his office on the question of poverty.
The film is seen through the eyes of two Catholic priests ministering in the local parish — Father Nicolas (Jérémie Renier), a young Belgian, who is suffering from survival guilt after the massacre of the villagers he was lived among in the Peruvian Amazon, and Father Julián (the ever wonderful Ricardo Darín) who has been a selfless padre for the shantytown for 15 years but who is now diagnosed with cancer. Along with Luciana, a young social worker (the beautiful manga-eyed Martina Gusman), they are the resident’s only tie to officialdom and the bureaucracy that prefers to pretend the slum, 15,000-people strong, does not exist. This despite the fact is sprawls around the white elephant of the title, the massive shell of an unfinished Perón-era hospital.
The priests fight day-to-day battles with the social scourges of the slum, many of them drug-related; as is often the case, the only people in the neighbourhood with any money are the narco-traffickers. In one particularly impressive scene Father Nicolas braves a visit to a gangster’s headquarters to retrieve the body of a local youth they have executed, breaking, in doing so, one of Father Julián’s fundamental rules — no negotiating with the drug-lords. Thus begin the tensions among the three (the younger Father Nicolas has also embarked on a secret affair with Luciana); the film is permeated with an underlying guilt about the three who come from wealthier backgrounds, who can walk away at any time, something that was undoubtedly mirrored among Trapero and his crew, who shot the film in the very slum they depict.
Trapero specialises in gritty dramas that pick at the underbelly of Argentine society. They are also sufficiently influential to bring media and public spotlights on particular issues — his 2008 film Leonera/Lion’s Den led to improvements in women’s prisons in Argentina, while his more recent ambulance-chasing drama Carancho highlighted public-sector corruption. The ravages of poverty among Argentina’s urban poor — many of them of indigenous background — is not something that is unknown in wider Argentine society but Elefante Blanco is sure to niggle at the conscience all the more. It also includes, in a rather inconclusive subplot, a campaign to beatify Carlos Mugica, a left-leaning Jesuit priest murdered by a death squad under Isabel Perón’s government in 1974 (the film is also dedicated to him), an eery echo of the crimes the new pope has been accused of countenancing.
There is much good about the film — Trapero’s documentary eye for detail is excellent as usual, and his shoulder-hugging camera evokes the teeming nature of shanty-town life. The acting, by professional and non-professional alike, is excellent. The only problem though is the film doesn’t exactly know where to go with the story it sets up for itself (Father Julián’s cancer is revealed in the very first scene) and the structure of the final third is far too predictable. Elefante Blanco is in many respects a good film but it lacks a little extra that would elevate it above your average social drama, even if it does appear extra-interesting in the light of an Argentine pope.