Published Sep 07, 2012Noted early on in Pablo Trapero's third film exposing the dark corners of Buenos Aires (the other two being Lion's Den and Carancho), the titular White Elephant is a dilapidated goliath of a building originally intended to be Latin America's largest hospital. Left unfinished through various political regimes and tumultuous uprisings, it represents the insurmountable struggle and unfulfilled potential of the dangerous slum surrounding it: Villa Maria.
But Trapero's visceral sensibility and sober eye aren't interested in telling a mere underdog story of hope and determination fully realized. Here, the central gentrification project, wherein housing and community centres are being built to help those stuck in the middle of a drug turf war, is run by two flawed, but well-intentioned priests and a conflicted social worker whose pasts and motivations aren't summarized glibly by nobility and philanthropy.
Julian (Ricardo Darin) is a mortally ill priest looking to give his fleeting life purpose and French recruit Father Nicolas (Jeremie Renier) – scarred from surviving an Amazonian massacre – has ideological difficulties beyond the nature of God in relation to the worldly horrors surrounding him. Having taken a vow of celibacy, the feisty and passionate Luciana (Martina Gusman) forces him to challenge his will and beliefs.
Since this highly realist and often gritty examination of futility and historical repetition is defined primarily by its in-the-moment dynamic, often shifting from dramatic moments to a chaotic police raid at the drop of a hat, the central character conflicts and psychology take a back seat to tone and style. This isn't necessarily a flaw, since Trapero deftly balances characterization with the unpredictability of residing in a locale where random gunfire is the status quo, but it does detract from audience connection and emotional response.
Still, the denial of a standard motivating narrative structure and the focus on missionary and social work as something not entirely altruistic or easily defined is refreshing and, in itself, quite captivating. (Full House)