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Set in present day Buenos Aires, a middle-aged catholic priest (Ricardo
Darin) who is working on a housing project in a real-life slum brings a
french priest friend (Jérémie Renier) to work with him.
In my opinion, the movie's strength is not so much the plot but the realistic portrayal of the crude slum life-style, codes, culture and hardships.
My office is 4 blocks away from that slum, it is quite a contrast between a slick cosmopolitan, corporate world and a poverty-stricken area where violent crime thrives. I can tell you the director achieved great accuracy in the portrayal of the slum environment, without conveying a condescending feel, but a dignified one.
Worth a watch.
The perfect portray of human hypocrisy. I guess the actual message in
this movie is that nothing really ends, nor the struggle for a better
life or the evil that keeps people from getting a better life.
Some other reviewer stated this kind of story had already been told... Well has it?. Not this one in particular, I think the characters are quite real. Both main characters and extras have done a wonderful job keeping it real, nothing i have seen in Argentinian films for a while.
The shots are beautiful and seem to capture very well the actual landscape of the "villas". Music on the other hand doesn't live up to the most dramatic moments in the film, and personally I think it could have been improved.
To sum up "Elefante blanco" is definitely a movie to be watched, and mostly a message to be heard.
Argentinean director Pablo Trapero brings to the screen a very dark
seemingly hopeless disparity between the rich and the poor. Written by
Trapero along with Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui and Santiago Mitre,
the story will burn on the viewer's mind the hypocrisy of disparity
between the rich and the poor.
The film opens in the Peruvian jungle where Father Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) witnesses the brutal massacre of his friends and congregation while he alone survives, leaving a profound sense of guilt for not having also died in the catastrophe. Father Nicolás's beloved friend and confessor Father Julián (Ricardo Darín) brings Nicolás to the "Villa Virgin", a 'favela' like shantytown in the slums of Buenos Aires near an abandoned huge project for a hospital that was started decades ago in Buenos Aires, seen today as a typical "white elephant", a useless structure that now houses the poverty stricken inhabitants. Drugs provide the major business in this ghetto. Assault weapons and firearms can be found almost everywhere. Add all that to the precarious living conditions and this sort of hell on earth is not even fit for anyone to endure. The two priests work tirelessly to help the local people. Julián uses his political connections to oversee the construction of a hospital. Nicolás remains deeply troubled from his experience in the jungle, but he does find comfort in Luciana (Martina Gusman), a young, attractive, atheist social worker. As Nicolás' faith weakens, tension and violence between the slum drug dealing cartels grows. And when work on the hospital is halted by ministerial decree, the faith of the inhabitants of Villa Virgin is shattered, and Nicolás discovers he has been called by Julián to assume his role of parish priest as Julián is coping with an undiagnosed neurological disease. It is a test of wills, a test of faith, and a sense of being crushed by the politics of Argentina.
Because of the setting in the filthy and decrepit slum the visuals become confusing with the cinematography by Guillermo Nieto attempting to take in too much visual information to the point of confusing the story line. But the musical score by Michael Nyman is brilliant and enhances the film tremendously. The three major actors - Darin, Renier, and Gusman - are outstanding in very difficult roles. If the audience is left with a sense of the futility the people of the slums face daily, then the film has accomplished its mission. In Spanish with English subtitles.
There are two dominant symbols in the film that represent its major
themes: the unfinished hospital that is the white elephant of the title
and the murder of priests.
An unfinished white building that was supposed to be a hospital and carried the ambitions of various Argentinian leaders to be the best hospital on the continent has become the centre of a Buenos Aires slum. Surrounding the building are more make shift dwellings that house people and the community's chapel. On public land outside, building has begun on a project to provide new permanent homes for the slum dwellers, a community centre and, at the centre, a new church. This building is soon abandoned by the development company after its employees wages fail to materialise. Who is responsible for paying the wages is not established amidst the bureaucracy. The community's anger when the work ceases boils over into a violent confrontation with the police that ends in fatality.
A 'white elephant' is an expression for the evident presence of something ignored or not spoken about. As a symbol it is prevalent throughout the film and is a leitmotif. Other white elephants include the wealth of the Catholic church contrasted with its parishioners; the question of why a priest, as a representative of faith, cannot marry or have sexual relations yet can preach on these matters; the summary justice visited on the slum dwellers by authorities that mirrors the criminal behaviours they are there to prevent; and, the biggest white elephant of them all, why don't the elected leaders act? Why are the slum dwellers left poor? If they can make homes from nothing then why can't homes be made for them?
The incomplete hospital represents the shifting and unsettled politics of Argentina with investment being provided and then withdrawn as the country's elected leaders changed. Thus the film can be viewed as a comment on the turbulent political sands of South America and the divide between wealthy and poor as much as on Argentina and Buenos Aires.
The other symbol of the film is Father Carlos Mugica, a real life figure who, like the character of Father Julian (Ricardo Darin), hailed from an affluent background and devoted his religious life to the poor. Mugica was assassinated for his efforts by an anticommunist political group and this serves as a reminder of the high price leaders of the poor and disenfranchised can pay when society's paymasters feel threatened.
The film opens in another South American country, Peru, where another poor community are being massacred as the authorities hunt for their priest, Father Nicolas (Jeremie Renier), who manages to elude capture. We do not learn what Fr Nicolas has done to invite such wrath but given what we see of Fr Nicolas later he was probably campaigning in an active way for his parishioners betterment, which was at odds with the authorities' wishes. During his convalescence he is visited by his colleague and confessor Father Julian who persuades him to return with him to Buenos Aires and help with the work the church are engaged in at the slum. Fr Nicolas's introduction to the reality of slum life hits him on his first night when the quiet is interrupted by gun fire and a pounding song on the soundtrack underlines how busy and noisy will be his new environment.
The film's strength is its depiction and evocation of slum life. The director, Pablo Trapero, filmed in an actual Buenos Aires slum and many of the minor players and extras were from the local population. In spite of the poverty and crime the slum is shot in a way that shows its quirky beauty, the care of the people for their environment and its vitality.
Contrasted to the pulsating slum life are the sterile and hierarchical meetings held by the church leaders with Fr Julian. One of the film's debates, explored via Fr Julian and Nicolas, is the issue of faith and its relationship, if any, with sinful behaviour. Remote and privileged, the religious leaders follow an orthodoxy that cannot adapt to the challenges faced by their priests in the slum and in this they fail their priests who are left to their own devices amidst the ensuing chaos. The actions of Fr Julian and Nicolas might be viewed as sinful but it seems equally sinful not to act, as is the decision made by the church leaders.
One major criticism of the film is that its desire to be faithful to slum life makes the film very busy and more like a series of vignettes than a story following one or two characters. Indeed the main characters become symbols themselves rather than fleshed out people. On my first viewing I was left dissatisfied with the film as a result. A second viewing helped greatly as I was no longer concerned with plot and could focus instead on the themes and how characters and events contributed to them. Overall I think the film is a good one with strong acting, superb sense of place and time and a cracking soundtrack that contrasts popular music with orchestral pieces composed by Michael Nyman that are like dirges contributing to a prevailing sadness. Throughout the film mourns, without sentimentality, the plight of the slum dwellers and the losses in their lives and of those who try to help, as well as the loss of individual aspirations and hopes.
Someone has described Trapero's films as muscular and that is a good way to view this film. It is strong and dynamic and encourages one to think about it and what is being portrayed.
Very good movie excellently performed by Argentina big star , Ricardo
Darin . This Cannes selected film contains a fascinating , brooding
story , perfectly acted and concerning the narration about the
construction a hospital of riveting manner . The "Villa Virgin", a
shantytown in the barrios of Buenos Aires. Julian (Ricardo Darin) and
Nicolas (the French Jeremie Renier) , two priests and long-standing
friends, work tirelessly to help the local people. Julian uses his
political connections to oversee the building of a hospital. Nicolas
unites him following the flop of a mission he was leading in the jungle
, after paramilitary forces assassinated members of the community.
Deeply troubled, he finds a little comfort in Luciana (Martina Gusman),
an enticing social worker . As Nicolas' faith weakens, tension and
violence between the barrio drug dealing cartels grow. And when work on
the hospital is halted by ministerial decree , the fuse is lit...
This is a co-production Argentina/Spain/France , being well paced , skillfully edited and very interesting . The picture is plenty of thrills , intense drama , a love story , violence and thought-provoking issues . After splendid collaboration between Pablo Trapero and Ricardo Darin in a thriller titled ¨Carancho¨ , this relationship worked out so well that they're doing it again . Trapero's Elefante Blanco seems like a very likely candidate to turn up in becoming quite simply one of the best films of its year . The insightful storyline relies heavily on the continued relationship among three protagonists but it isn't tiring ; being entertained and with numerous diverting moments and agreeable feeling . Darin and Jeremie Renier star as priests coping in very different ways with the violence and corruption in the Buenos Aires slum of Villa Virgen where they work , both of them carry out excellent performances along with Martina Gusman playing as an atheist social worker . However , Ricardo Darin steals the show as the obstinate priest , Darin is a magnificent leading figure of the most important Argentinian movies such as ¨El Aura¨, "El Faro" (1998), "El Mismo Amor La Misma Lluvia" (1999), "Nueve Reinas" (2000), "La Fuga" (2001) and especially ¨El Hijo de la Novia¨ . Evocative production design filmed on location in barrios and slums from Buenos Aires , Capital Federal and Plaza Guemes . Emotive as well as sensitive musical score by the British Michael Nyman . Colorful and adequate cinematography by cameraman Guillermo Nieto . The motion picture well produced by Alejandro Cacetta and Juan Vera , was compellingly directed by Pablo Trapero . Trapero is a good filmmaker , his best film was ¨Carancho¨, dealing with a slow burning exercise in moral decay and his usual actress results to be Martina Gosman who has worked in various film with him , such as : ¨Lion's den¨ , ¨Nacido y Criado¨ , ¨Carancho¨ and of course this ¨Elefante Blanco¨ . This dramatic flick is an above average film and Argentina's official submission to the Cannes Film Festival and achieved several Awards of the Argentinean Academy. Indispensable and essential seeing for Ricardo Darin fans .
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'White Elephant' begins with a prologue about how Julian brings a
younger priest Nicolas back to Buenos Aires. It also begins with Julian
undergoing a scan, reminiscent of Kurosawa's 'Ikiru', a film about one
man trying to make a small difference in the face of death. Both
priests begin the film suffering in different ways. One physically from
a terminal illness, only known to us the viewer (dramatic irony), and
perhaps brought on by overwork/stress; the other, spiritually, from a
guilt-ridden conscience after surviving a massacre which left his
Two priests with different approaches: Julian is a latter-day St Francis of Assisi, a man who has given up his wealthy background to work in the slums and who tries to make a difference by battling political bureaucracy (inefficiency & indifference) & the hierarchy of his own church authorities, who appear more interested in 'talk' than action. Nicolas works on the front line, mediating between warring gangsters & working alongside his secular counterpart, a social worker, Luciana, with a mutual attraction developing between them.
The 'White Elephant' of the film's title is a huge unfinished hospital, now occupied by drug addicts, and which acts as a metaphor for the stunted development of the slum as a whole- and the failure of a new smaller development (the workers go on strike after not being paid) emphasises the continued failure by the next generation of politicians to address these issues. As one reviewer put it well, it is as if the slum has also been 'forgotten' by God, too. And the people of the slum finally reach breaking point after yet more bureaucratic inefficiency leads them to taking matters into their own hands (to finish the development for themselves) and a confrontation with the authorities.
The film adopts a visceral approach, more an edgy, fast-paced social drama than an examination of faith in, say, the poetic manner of Bresson. It contains a number of plots, such as the relationship between the two priests fighting crime, poverty and despair (including their own), a love story, the attempt to help a young delinquent as well as a social critique. Perhaps this is one of the flaws of the film. It contains too many plots and tries to cover so many issues, making it feel disjointed.
For a film about priests, it didn't have many moments of 'transcendence', but it seemed, to me, to be more about what a priest/church should be in the 21st century & a damaged world.
Instead, the film-maker, Trapero, imaginatively uses imagery to make biblical allusions. Candles/lights shining in darkness/at night, recall John 1:5 (The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it); Nicolas' journey into a gangster's compound is literally 'a walk into the valley of the shadow of death'; and the young addict/delinquent, Monito, is 'a prodigal son'/lost sheep, sent to the church's 'farm' in an effort to lure him away from bad influences. The figure of Mary, Mother of Grace, to whom the priests pray for succour, has a dark counterpoint in a woman who is in charge of a rival neighbourhood gang.
I actually think the film shows what the Catholic Church must do if it is remain relevant in the 21st century. That it must socially engage with those most in need & reminded me of a recent BBC4 programme on 'The Salvation Army', where pastoral work was described as 'the church outside four walls'. The Church cannot survive in seclusion (Nicolas is banished to a monastery at the end of the film), but must take sides (of the poor) and be socially engaged if it is to remain relevant. And, after all, did Christ not consort with the poor & the marginalised?
Regarding the background to the film, it's interesting that the Catholic Church has since elected its first Latin American, and specifically Argentine, Pope who has a reputation for supporting the poor.
The emphasis is less on 'sin', but on 'faith', as Nicolas utters during a service in the church, a faith based less on judging people and more on maintaining one's faith & hope in the darkness. This contrasts with the more cynical, bitter Cruz, a support worker who despairs at the pointlessness of it all (a plot twist reveals the truth about his 'exit').
This is encapsulated in the behaviour of Nicolas himself. Who/what is a good man in a flawed world? Is a priest who swears, drinks, smokes & has sexual desires, a good man? Then, the answer is an overwhelming 'Yes'. The film does not judge its protagonist but rather shows Nicolas as a man who tries to do good, presenting a modern take on Christian (Catholic) values such as the issue of celibate priests. His relationship with Luciana is not purely sexual, but about a mutually supportive relationship based on love (a marriage in all but name).
Gradually, Nicolas realises why Julian brought him to Buenos Aires. He experiences faith & doubt. Can he live up to the faith shown in him and live up to his responsibilities? As Luciana says: 'Leave? It's easier.'
The ending was perhaps melodramatic as Julian tries to help Monito escape from the police, though Julian becomes a very modern martyr, reminiscent of the real-life figure of Fr Carlos Mugica, who worked in the slum and whose murder has never been solved.
The film featured strong performances from all of the lead characters, Ricardo Darin as Julian, Martina Gusman as Luciana and it was interesting to see Jeremie Renier (The Child/Dardenne brothers), mature as an actor. I didn't recognise him from that earlier film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The evils of society at large, are examined by Argentine director Pablo
Trapero. He sets his story in the "favela" like shantytown that
sprouted near an abandoned huge project for a hospital that was started
decades ago in Buenos Aires, seen today as a typical "white elephant",
an useless structure that houses today the marginalized inhabitants to
the nearby slum. Drugs are a lucrative business within this ghetto.
Assault weapons and fire arms can be found almost everywhere. Add all
that to the precarious living conditions and this sort of hell on earth
is not even fit for anyone to live.
There is a prologue to the story. Father Julian, who has met Nicolas as they were studying for the priesthood, goes into the Peruvian jungle to rescue his friend from the massacre which he miraculously survived, carrying the guilt for not having died himself. Julian brings Nicolas to Buenos Aires to the church where he is tending to the poor inhabitants of the shantytown. Unknown to Nicolas, Julian has been diagnosed with a strange neurological disease, which is never mentioned. In a way, Julian has reached to Nicolas to be his successor, once he is not around.
Nicolas encounters all kinds of human tragedy in the area. A young social worker, Luciana, is another source for bringing hope to the desperation of the people in the shantytown. It does not take long before Nicolas realizes the attraction he feels for the young woman, who also has fallen passionately in love with the young priest. As was rages within the confines of the slum town, bringing tragedy into the area. Julian has to do wonders in order to feed the needy while silently suffering the disease that is robbing his life.
The screenplay was a collaboration by the director, Martin Mauregui, Alejandro Fadel and Santiago Mitre. The idea is not exactly new, as this has been the subject of movies of such impact as Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" as well as others that have examined the misery, despair and cruelty found in places such as the one depicted in this film. Where Mr. Trapero succeeds is in the handling of the cast. Ricardo Darin is a natural whose work gets better all the time. Jeremie Renier has some good moments, although he seems a bit out of place. Martina Gusma, who is Mrs. Trapero in real life, makes the most of her Luciana.
Guillermo Nieto's cinematography is crude, something that was required to make the movie work. Michael Nyman's film score does not go well with the images on the screen.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Directed by Pablo Trapero, "Elephante Blanco" is an Argentine project with a bunch of ambition but wavers in execution. Leads Jeremie Reiner, Ricardo Darin, and Martina Gusman all seem plausible and turn in satisfactory acting, but the direction and storytelling badly lacks flow. It takes nearly 20 min to understand the semblance of plot, but worse there are several plot lines of which none is really delved into with competence: championing the poor, a drug war, an illicit forbidden relationship, and internal politics of the religion. The storlines don't really mesh, and the movie suffers for it. The climax doesn't afford much connection, and the epilogue the same. The cinematography is not too inventive, and the action uninvolving. Only the relationship holds energy, and it is a distant 3rd subplot in the movie. Can't really recommend 5.5/10
Really disappointed me with a very weak argument, it seems that the
film tries to portray only what we already know what happens in the
villages. Images repetitive, almost exaggerated, about the inhuman
conditions in which many people live in our country, make a documentary
Yes, it is impeccable filming, excellent cinematography, setting, and a way to shoot that turn the viewer into another resident of that place. Not so the music I think is another weak point because, beyond the issue of Pity Alvarez with which opens and closes the film, music that is heard is really bad.
But the film fails because it fails to catch a solid script and with characters that are created in such a way to get in your skin. Darin always right but off other papers, it sticks Renier with authority about his character but the most important protagonist of the film seems to be the rain, constant, unbearable, identified as another of the many shrines that these people must suffer, suggests almost as God forgot that part of the world. In short, a movie not to miss, but it is far from being among the best of Trapero, of Darin, of the year of our cinema.
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