White Elephant: Cannes Review

Elefante Blanco White Elephant
Involving tale about two Argentine priests of the slums is given intensity and meaning without glossing over.

Argentine director Pablo Trapero's drama follows two priests who minister to a sprawling slum outside Buenos Aires.

Argentine director Pablo Trapero fashions a gripping, fast-paced story centered around two priests who minister to a sprawling slum outside Buenos Aires, and who fall victim to the violence they are trying to combat with love. It’s not a very hopeful picture that emerges from the terse story of White Elephant, an update on the work of South America’s socially committed priests that emphasizes their human qualities and failings alongside their courage. Though not everybody will be interested in the subject, edgy performances by Ricardo Darin (The Secret in their Eyes) and Dardenne brothers’ regular Jérémie Renier add accessibility and interest. 

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The opening scene of a nocturnal massacre of villagers in Amazonia by paramilitary troops is an electrifying piece of filmmaking that sets the bar high, and though the rest of the film is certainly eventful, there is nothing that reaches this level of intensity. One of the few survivors of the attack is the Belgian priest Father Nicolas (Renier), who Father Julian (Darin) tracks down in a village hospital, wounded and emotionally devastated. He takes him back his mission in the heart of a vast shantytown, one of the most dangerous in the country, where a war is in progress between two drug lords.  

Overshadowed by the hulking skeleton of an unfinished hospital occupied by squatters, the padres work side by side with spunky, hyper-competent social worker Luciana (Trapero regular Martina Gusman), who catches the eye of young Father Nicolas. Their guiltless relationship will raise eyebrows, but appears almost, if not quite, natural in the context of the film.

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A handful of sharply drawn characters punctuate the story, including a whining young drug addict presented without the least shade of softening. Still he is seen as salvageable by the team, who operate with heroic day-to-day Christianity despite their earthy language sprinkled with ghetto-talk (another eyebrow-raiser.) Local gang wars and shoot-outs are followed by police incursions and street battles, keeping the temperature high and pacing tight. Michael Nyman’s sweepingly majestic score lends an epic dimension, which feels right alongside the straight-forward passion depicted by an evenly balanced, top-drawer cast.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Certain Regard), May 21, 2012.
Production companies: Morena Films, Matanza Cine, Patagonik
Co-Production: Full House, Arte
Cast: Riccardo Darin, Jérémie Renier, Martina Gusman
Director: Pablo Trapero
Screenwriters: Alejandro Fadel,Martín Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Pablo Trapero
Producers: Juan Gordon, Pablo Trapero, Juan Pablo Galli, Juan Vera, Alejandro Cacetta
Director of photography: Guillermo Nieto
Production designer: Juan Pedro de Gaspar, Fernando Brun
Costumes: Marisa Urruti
Editors: Pablo Trapero, Nacho Ruiz Capillas, Santiago Esteves
Music: Michael Nyman
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No Rating; 110 minutes.