Elefante Blanco (White Elephant)     
Directed by Pablo Trapero     
Starring Ricardo Darín, Jérémie Renier, Martina Gusman      
Argentina, 2012, 120 minutes, English subtitles  

Independent cinema is alive and well as the heart-thumping Argentinian film Elefante Blanco or White Elephant proves. Inspired by the so-called villas miserias in Buenos Aires, sprawling slums notorious for poverty-fuelled crime and crime-induced violence, White Elephant depicts the day-to-day desperation and fragile hope which priests and community workers have to contend with.

Now that a resident of BA has become Pope, the world is taking a greater interest in his roots. Pope Francis has made no secret of his desire to remedy social injustice, poverty and inequality, although he has distanced himself from Marxist solutions. Elefante Blanco is a good introduction to the mix of poverty, piety and liberation theology that has proved so explosive in Argentina and which Cardinal Bergoglio had to deal with.

In the 1960s and 1970s a group known as the Movement of Priests for the Third World became deeply involved in social activism on behalf of the oppressed. One famous activist was Padre Carlos Mugica, a controversial cleric with Marxist ideas. In 1974 he was murdered in this slum, apparently by a right-wing death squad. His life inspires the priests who are the focus of White Elephant.

The “white elephant” of the title refers to a huge abandoned hospital which was built in the 1930s and now lies in ruins. It is used as a tumbledown shelter for the homeless, gangs and drug dealers.

In the midst of the squalor and misery, two priests try to carry out their ministry. The older one, Father Julián, played by Ricardo Darín, works tirelessly despite problems with his health. The  younger one, Father Nicolás, played by Jérémie Renier, veers towards abandoning religion and piety in order to play a leading role in the social struggle. He is tempted to fall for Luciana, a struggling social worker played by Martina Gusman. The tension between God and politics gives English-speaking viewers a window into the allure of giving purely social solutions for existential problems.

Dramatic and gritty, shot documentary-style and based on real-life stories from the Ciudad Oculta slum in Buenos Aires, the priests battle to complete a doomed local housing regeneration project as personal failings and bureaucratic red tape frustrate the fragmented community’s hope of a better standard of living.

White Elephant is minimalist filmmaking at its best. While unshowy, the film doesn’t hold back on the bloody details of the 30,000 strong slum inhabitant’s often messy lives, as their community is ravaged by widespread drug abuse and gang culture sparked violence.

No easy answers are provided for the day-to-day challenges and ensuing moral dilemmas faced by the two priests and their small group of helpers.  Director Pablo Trapero  doesn’t offer a way out for its main characters or a sanitised sense of optimism.

Similar poverty-themed, independent-spirited films, like Danny Boyle’s Oscar-conquering Slumdog Millionaire, sometimes serve up happy endings which naively propose softer, rose-tinted alternatives to real and desperate situations which on the ground in real-time often seem hopeless.

White Elephant plays out more like a behind-the-scenes expose of Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, swapping the tragic street urchins of India for teenage Argentinians  who aspire to be in the minority who make it out of the slums as doctors and lawyers, as opposed to the seemingly countless youngsters full of needle/bullet holes, perhaps carted out of the slum on a wheelbarrow, as one harrowing scene depicts.

The film would have been stronger if it had followed its instincts to be restrained throughout, on a few occasions indulging in emotive music, weakening scenes which really don’t require it and disturbing the finely balanced tone set by its early flourishes of controlled, observational drama devoid of any musical window dressing.

Reminiscent of the Rio de Janeiro slum drama City of God (2002), White Elephant is less aware of its cinematic wizardry and subsequently more responsive to its human interest, strongest when content with a quiet, brooding intimacy off-set with atmospheric silences and understated dialogues, heightening its unaffected feel. It’s a pity that movie fans in the English-speaking world will have to scrounge through specialty video shops (or download it from the internet) to see this fine film.

Troubling content includes prolonged scenes of gangland violence and its consequences as well scenes of drug use and one moderate sex scene with brief female nudity.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...