A homage to the men of the cloth fighting poverty in Argentina, Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant explores the moral murk and courage of the missionary position.
City Of God by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Filmed in and around the Ciudad Oculta slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, White Elephant takes its name from the neglected hospital complex once designed by socialist Senator Alfredo Palacio to be the largest in Latin America. Construction began in the Thirties, only to be abandoned, relaunched in the Fifties by Perón and abandoned again. Since the Eighties the “hidden city” has provided a home to somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 paperless Argentinians from all over the country seeking their fortune in the big smoke. Pablo Trapero’s film is a homage to the Catholic priests, those who live, work and die in the villa, like Father Mugica murdered in the ’70s, exposing the problems they face, fighting drug gangs and saving one soul at a time. It’s a thankless, hopeless task, and as priests Julián and Nicolas walk the line between politics, police and priesthood, even they start to question whether or not it’s their ministry that’s the white elephant
After being diagnosed with an undisclosed fatal illness following a CT scan, Father Julián (Ricardo Darín) who lives and works in the Villa 15, heads upriver to bring Father Nicolas (Jérémie Renier) back from hospital following an attack on the Amazonian village where he was working. The two priests pool their ministries to promote peace and prosperity in the shanty town, together with atheist social worker Luciana (Martina Gusman) building a refectory, offering sewing and Spanish classes, as well as rehab and sacraments to the slum dwellers. They juggle improving the neighbourhood with petitioning the bishopric for funds and tread a fine line between keeping the residents’ trust and obeying the law in this dangerous underworld plagued with gangs, guns and drug wars. But as Father Nicolas falls for Luciana and his crisis of faith intensifies, Father Julián’s plans for him to take over the slum chapel start to crumble.
Taking on ambulance chasers in Carancho and women’s prisons in Lion’s Den, Pablo Trapero likes to get his teeth into a good cause. And White Elephant is no exception with its tale of two priests living in the demimonde of a Buenos Aires slum. And while most of his protagonists in his films are called, at some point, to an action beyond their usual moral code, White Elephant picks up from Born And Raised with its forty-something man and his existential crisis. Fathers Julián and Nicolas are priests, but above all, they’re men. They only wear the dog collar in the slum so as not to look like cops. It’s an access-all-areas pass, but one they take care to play down, wearing it only with an open collar. They occupy a space between elevated priest and everyday man, and from the beginning, as Julián is reversed into a scanner, he’s both humanised, (without a collar) and dehumanised (upside-down and with surgical gauze moulding his face).
As Luciana jokes, both Julián and Nicolas are from wealthy families – priests who have the luxury of being poor. And while Father Julián attempts to groom his underling to take over leadership of the villa, Nicolas is haunted by his cowardice in the jungle, silently allowing a family to die in his name. Smoking, swearing and having sex, Father Nicolas isn’t your average priest, plagued by feelings of being undeserving of God’s love and struggling to reconcile his heavenly and biological vocations for sexual intimacy and a family. Yet, this isn’t your usual Catholic doctrine, and there’s some kind of forgiveness as his friend and confessor absolves him with a worldly and pragmatic “It’s easy to be a martyr, it’s difficult to go to work every day knowing it’s meaningless.” And in White Elephant’s final sequence, as Father Nicolas looks up at the empty hospital, it’s the meaning of the priests’ ministry itself that comes into question.
Shot largely at twilight, Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant brings a beauty to gang warfare in the slum, as bullets ring out over a purple dawn. And with Michael Nyman’s dramatic brass underscoring the film’s bravura, dialogue-free opening overture and its protagonists’ fall from grace, Trapero’s film heads inexorably towards tragedy. And while the priest-cop shoot-out feels shoehorned in for shock effect – Trapero’s heady riot of barricades, banners, water cannon and tear gas is enough to make any man giddy – the stakes are huge, as the two priests attempt to smuggle out reformed addict and cop-killer Monito, the soul the priests need to save to justify their seemingly futile vocation. It’s also this cathartic explosion of violence that puts Nicolas back on the straight and narrow, reformed in a countryside monastery and heading back to the villa to take charge. Focussing largely on the politics of intervention, White Elephant pays tribute to the thankless role priests play in Buenos Aires’ poorest slums, offering its inhabitants possibilities of escape, community and salvation. And like its priests, it’s not faultless but courageous enough to take on the Argentine elephant in the room.
White Elephant is released on 26th April 2013 in the UK