TIFF 2012: White Elephant (Elefante Blanco) – Movie Review
Director: Pablo Trapero Screenplay: Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, Santiago Mitre and Pablo Trapero Starring: Martina Gusman, Ricardo Darin and Jérémie Renier Runtime: 111 minutes TIFF 2012 Programme: Special Presentation
White Elephant focuses on two priests, Julian (Ricardo Darin) and Nicolas (Jeremie Renier), stationed in Buenos Aires’ The Virgin Villa, which is a slum-like housing compound ready to explode with gang violence, police raids, and inner turmoil. The two men try to keep the peace within the local community while grappling with their own issues. It takes sometime for the movie to get going as the first 14 minutes have very little dialogue, but when Julian brings a psychologically fearful Nicolas from the jungle to the shantytown, the story begins to move. The first of two story lines revolves around Julian’s parish trying to get construction workers to build new apartments for the villagers despite lack of funding. Only the foundation is completed. The second spins around Nicolas; discovery of an ongoing drug war over territorial dominance.
Much of the movie follows the leads as they make their daily rounds performing sermons, helping local youth stay clean and disrupting conflict. These routines become predictable making up a solid portion of the second act. There’s an unnecessary romance between Nicolas and social worker Luciana (Martina Gusman). This just seems too obvious a subplot having a young priest question his faith. The back-story more than suffices his internal turmoil.
A lot of the dialogue is simply audience exposition covering parish/villa history. One revolves around the fallen Father Mugica who established the parish. Others concern the title characters’ back-stories. Amusingly I started thinking of The West Wing. The characters are interacting with one another while walking, talking and exploring the hostile location. Some key information is disclosed for example, when Julian absolves Nicolas of his past sins he responds, “The guilt won’t let me breathe”. It feels like some of the younger actors struggle delivering their line so they do not appear over the top, particularly the character Esteban, a junkie who literally climbs walls.
Pablo Trapero’s direction is contradictory; the tonality shifting between a straightforward trying-to-make-a-difference drama to a pulse-pounding thriller. White Elephant’s first fourteen minutes feel moody but then the opening title flashes onscreen accompanied by Intoxicados’ Las cosas que no tocan and this song can only be described as an assault on your eardrums! The police raids are well choreographed yet still feel like they belong in a different film. On a positive note, one scene’s camera work, blocking, and direction is handled extremely well. Nicolas journeys through drug dealer Carmelita’s block, which is a maze filled with twists and turns, always offer up a lot of action in the frame, occasionally distracting the eye. In some ways Trapero seems to be taking his inspiration from director Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Sadly there are no similar sequences during the rest of the running time.
Jeremie Renier is best in show as Father Nicholas. He is a sympathetic character dealing with his own inner demons appearing throughout his performance. That is saying a lot as he is know for playing low-lifes such as In Bruges and The Child. Both Ricardo Darin and Martina Gusman have previously collaborated with Trapero on the ambulance chaser drama Carancho and appear here in supporting roles. Darin is very good but goes missing for a good portion of the second act due to the character’s health issues but anytime The Secret in Their Eyes’ actor is onscreen, he is a welcoming presence. Gusman does the best she can with an underwritten character with a lot of exposition and little development. I did enjoy her fighting with the construction team over unpaid wages.
This low key drama mixed with action feels tonally off and while it has some solid acting and a few interesting set pieces, most of which seem to be on location, the movie disappointingly lacks the same impact that other films have of its kind like City of God.