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White Elephant | TIFF 2012 Review

Sisyphus Complex: Trapero’s Latest Argentinean Melodrama Ironically Titled

Pablo Trapero White Elephant PosterArgentinean auteur Pablo Trapero returns with his latest, White Elephant, the last in what caps a trilogy depicting dire straights in Buenos Aires. With wife and muse Martina Gusman along for the ride, fellow countrymen and star Ricardo Darin, who also appeared in Trapero’s last film, 2010’s Carancho, returns for duty. And for a little international flavor, Belgian star Jérémie Renier provides us with an intriguing presence as leading man and protagonist. Trapero, insisting on showing us the degrading underbelly of Buenos Aires, doesn’t shy away here, but somehow doesn’t manage to strike any resonating moments with a somewhat predictable and calculated exploration of two slum priests involved with a housing project filmed in an actual slum.

Father Julian (Ricardo Darin) is desperately working on a housing project in the slums, located in close proximity to the rich and affluent district. While occupying a monolithic structure that was destined to be Latin America’s largest hospital, Julian rescues a younger protégé, a French priest, Father Nicolás (Jérémie Renier), who recently survived a massacre that resulted in the slaughter of his entire village parish is. Hauling him into the hospital cum slum housing, known as the White Elephant, (construction beginning in 1938 but halted due to several upheavals in Argentina), Julian introduces Nicolás to a passionate social worker, Luciana (Martina Gusman). It’s immediately apparent that the younger priest and the beautiful social worker are attracted to one another. As Nicolas nurses his survival guilt, he quickly becomes wrapped up in the housing dilemma, which is in danger of being halted due to lack of funding. Quickly, he becomes invested in the welfare of several slum denizens, like the lost boy Monito, a recovering teenage addict turned mob vigilante.

Meanwhile, Father Julian, suffering from an impending health crises, has been burnt out on the grief and endless misery surrounding him. As he grooms Father Nicolás for a replacement both as the religious beacon in the midst of the needy and as a voice to continue fighting for continued funding from the city’s uncaring officials, he schools his protégé on the notions of heroism and martyrdom, claiming it’s harder to get up and work every day knowing full well that everything you do is useless. But when the social climate spins out of control, bringing our triptych of saviors to tragic circumstances, events will dictate their continued involvement in fighting for the disenfranchised.

Trapero certainly ekes out some believable performances from Darin and Renier, two actors that are game in any vehicle. Sadly, Gusman’s not much more than a sexually clichéd distraction, with no clear motivation or back story of her own. But perhaps the greatest detraction of all in White Elephant is the lack of tension, momentum or even concern we feel for its characters. In this respect, the film embraces the idiom it invokes, becoming a burdensome film whose cost, time, and effort consuming it is definitely out of proportion to what the end result can deliver. Michael Nyman, as always, provides an engaging score, while cinematographer Guillermo Nieto (a previous collaborator with Trapero) definitely catches a certain beauty in the rainy, muddy slum streets, and darkened haunts and alleys. There’s a dilapidated beauty captured in the rubble of the ruined hospital, and poetry in the beautiful shots of stray animals glinting into the rainy frames. And in one scene, where Father Nicolás must traverse into drug lord Carmelita’s territory to retrieve a corpse, we’re treated to a delirious trip through a seedy house of horrors, revealing a rough looking woman barking orders at preacher man about the rules in her territory.

For once, we get a realistic looking female cartel leader, women often fetishised beyond belief in the cinematic realm (see Salma Hayek sporting her best Nelly Furtado wig in Oliver Stone’s Savages from earlier this year). Certainly, Trapero proves himself to be a talented director, but it’s hard to see White Elephant as anything more than a predictable, weak exercise that explores the same notions of faith crises, bureaucratic/economic BS, and altruistic ideology, we’ve seen repeatedly, clumsily serving us tragedy we’ve become dangerously desensitized to.

Reviewed on September 07 at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival – SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS Programme.
111 Min.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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