Elefante Blanco: Priests, slums, sex, drugs. Argentina’s “City of God”?

by Cecilia Baron, contributing blogger

It is not a very hopeful picture that emerges from  Elefante Blanco (white elefant) the latest film byArgentine director Pablo Trapero.  Thefast-paced story centered around two priests who minister to a sprawling slum in Buenos Aires, and who fall victim to the violence they are trying to combat with love. Edgy performances by Ricardo Darin (The Secret in their Eyes) and Dardenne brothers’ regular Jérémie Renier add accessibility and interest.

Elefante Blanco is the nickname given to colossal ruins of what was once intended to be a tuberculosis hospital, built in the 1930s and long since abandoned. It is now a wrecked cathedral of poverty and despair in the “Villa Virgin”, the toughest shantytown in Buenos Aires; here is where the poor and the homeless take refuge and where the drug dealers ply their trade and make recruits. The priests also live there and administer to the poor as well as help run a church-funded project to refurbish the building.

Father Julián, played by Ricardo Darín, is dedicated and severe, working tirelessly despite fading health. Father Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) is French, and agonized with guilt at his failure to stand up to murderous bandits at an earlier village project he had been running in the jungle. Nicolás and Julián take radically different views on the drug wars that are tearing the people apart. Nicolás wants to engage with the gangsters, get involved, even mediate their turf wars. Julián believes this inevitably will make the priests combatants, and liable to be killed. Julián’s superiors are telling him that if he can promote stories of miracles caused by the memory of Father Mujica, a priest killed by anti-communist forces in the 1970s, they can get political support for building a new hospital. Meanwhile, Nicolás is beginning to fall in love with a beautiful social worker, Luciana, played by Martina Gusman (real-life girlfriend of Trapero).

While the story captures the grit of the villa with documentary like reality, I had a hard time finding what the movie was really focused on and where it wanted to bring me as a viewer. The love story between Nicolás  and Luciana is a subplot that should have served to emphasize what this character was able to conserve as human values in this hopeless environment. Instead of that, Trapero suggests more a loss of personal identity and being overwhelmed by his own desires that do not serve what he was fighting for at first.

Elefante Blanco is definitely a must-see film that cannot let anyone impartial. Elefante Blanco has reached 743,908 pesos argentinos between July 5th and July 10th and testifies its popularity among the Argentina audience, being the most successful domestic release of the year.

Among other foreign movies that were presented in the category Un Certain Regard at Cannes Film Festival, Pablo Trapero’s movie reflects another kind of film making: more committed and in search of truth, which give a quite particular resonance to a world in the grip of societal and identical changes.  It turns out to be more than a cinematic experience, but also contributes to give a voice for those who have been forgotten or ignored by the majority of people.

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