Following on from 2010’s Carancho (The Vulture), director Pablo Trapero reunites with actor Ricardo Darín once more for White Elephant (Elefante blanco, 2012), another high-paced examination of systemic Argentine society. The film’s title refers to the dilapidated shell of what was once envisioned as the largest hospital in Latin America. This casualty of Argentina’s economic regression is now the beating heart of Villa Maria, a sprawling network of Buenos Aires slums. It’s here that real-life figure Father Carlos Mugica was shot dead by the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA), a militant anti-communist group.
A martyr for a community built out of the rubble of social unrest, well-meaning priest Julián (Darín) has continued Mugica’s dynasty, attempting to heal the spiritual wounds that existed long before the shooting. Due to a terminal health condition, Julián ropes in the younger Nicolás (played by Dardenne brothers regular Jérémie Renier), to whom he will one day hand over the reigns. However, an escalating gang war within the slums and the conflicts of interest affecting both priests’ lives culminate in a perfidious and incredibly fragile period within this treacherous shanty town.
A poignant drama with the dynamism and urgency of a crime thriller, White Elephant pervades a palpable air of tension and anxiety thanks to the impetus and nervous energy created by Trapero’s fluid and painstaking methodology. His camera never stops for breath, constantly stalking the film’s carefully-drawn characters with an ever-watchful eye. This adrenaline-fuelled approach culminates in a deeply immersive experience that thrusts you right into this vibrant metropolitan jungle. Meticulously-crafted, this bustling community feels like an endless warren of pulsating mistrust. Shot almost entirely on location, Villa Maria eventually becomes as much of a character as the film’s pious leads.
Trapero’s desire to highlight Buenos Aires’ numerous sociopolitical problems (a running theme throughout his directorial career) has culminated in a feature that feels a little bloated at times, and perhaps in need of a stronger focus – especially when the action moves away from the slums and onto the bureaucracy of church committees. Still, there’s little denying that Trapero’s passion transfers seamlessly to the screen. With the help of two stand-out performances – from both Darín and Renier – White Elephant manages to engage and educate its audience in a heartfelt, if noisy, manner.
Trapero’s latest is a fascinating Latin American drama, punctuated with scenes of genuine cultural significance and gripping action – climaxing, in typical fashion, with a powerful and shocking finale. An appealing concoction of assured workmanship and real-life social issues, White Elephant may not bring anything fresh to the table when it comes to cinematic meditations on the nature of poverty, yet does at the very least spark your interest, whilst offering an entertaining and sincere series of character studies.