dir. Pablo Trapero
TIFF 2012 Special Presentation
Review By Greg Klymkiw
In Villa Maria, the most notorious slum in Buenos Aires, crime is a disease.
Jesus is the cure.
That said, one of the most powerful images in this film is not Sylvester Stallone from Cobra wearing a crucifix instead of 80s gold chains round his neck, but the "white elephant" of the title, a humungous grey shell of a hospital that's been started by a couple of Argentinian regimes, only to never be completed. This rotting, crumbling monolith is an ever-present reminder that someone has to help these people. As well, it's an ever-present symbol of government neglect within this crime-infested shanty town.
It's a world unto itself, rife with filth, poverty and crime and begging for a good clean sweep. In the immortal words of Travis Bickle (who I just can't seem to get out of my head these days), "One day, a real rain will come. . ." And in White Elephant, Pablo Trapero's gripping, engaging crime picture with a difference, a torrential downpour upon the scum of the streets comes from the unlikeliest of places.
For those in the crossfire of gangs and drug lords, the no nonsense street cleaners of Argentina's corruption-ridden capitol are the mismatched crime-busting odd couple Father Julián (Ricardo Darín), with his careful, measured approach and rookie Father Nicolás (Jérémie Renier), a live wire who believes that actions speak louder than words. Inventively adopting the tropes of the cop-buddy thrillers of the 70s and 80s and applying them to committed Catholic Priests on a Mission from God is both entertaining and vitally imbued with a social conscience.
Okay, White Elephant is not really Danny Glover and Mel Gibson trading in their magnums for rosaries (though Darín and Renier do trade a few decent ecclesiastical Lethal Weapon-like quips), but in its own way, this is one strange, compelling and reasonably exciting dramatic crime thriller. These guys are tussling with some pretty rough customers and they're not only dealing with crime, but doing everything humanly possible to make life bearable for both the innocent and, even the guilty.
Food, medicine, revitalization projects and yes, spiritual guidance are all on the agenda. Add Luciana (Martina Gusman) to the mix - a smart, tough, savvy babe-o-licious social worker and yes, this is probably the first movie about priests that can genuinely be described as gangbusters!
What's kind of cool is that the movie extols the virtues of these two priests while, at the same time, exposing the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church itself. Their hands are continually being slapped or tied by a smarmy Bishop and a bunch of pencil pushers with black robes. There's no love lost between myself and organized religion of any kind, but I've always detested knee-jerk reactions to those who have chosen the Cross rather than the Sword to do good work in the name of God.
And co-writer/director Trapero serves up a genuinely supportive and harrowing tale of men who use their faith in a higher power to selflessly serve those who can't help themselves. This is no mere whitewash, either. The narrative dabbles in the aforementioned area of organized religion's downsides, poses constant challenges to Faith in the Cloth and in one surprising, but very welcome subplot, Trapero delivers perhaps the greatest moral challenge of all - especially to Catholic priests.
The movie moves at a nice clip, features stunning location photography and is always exuberantly acted. Though the movie never scratches too deep below the surface, this is probably why it has just enough food for thought to keep it real, but also provides good, old fashioned entertainment.
"White Elephant" is a Special Presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012 (TIFF 2012) and showing Thursday September 13 TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 9:45 PM, Friday September 14 Scotiabank 2 3:00 PM and Sunday September 16 Scotiabank 2 5:45 PM. For further information and tickets, visit the TIFF website HERE.